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Britain’s HSR strategy should include a second north-south line

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Network Rail’s just-published draft London and South East Route Utilisation Strategy reveals that the Network Rail ‘New Lines’ work found there was a business case for a second, eastern, high-speed line in Britain.

The Association of Northeastern Councils (ANEC) is in no doubt on the need for a second line:

“We have consistently made the case for a whole network approach to the development of high speed, with the advancement of an eastern corridor in parallel with a western route in a Y configuration, to promote balanced economic growth across the UK.”

This important in the context of thinking about the longer term strategy for high-speed rail and any concern that the capacity on HS2 may be over-subscribed. Greengauge 21’s work comparing various network configurations concluded that a second north-south high-speed line was needed and had a good business case. It was simply not possible to serve the whole of the north from a single route.

Of course, for Government the main focus in 2011 is on HS2 – the planned link between London and the West Midlands. Some might assume it’s enough to develop HS2, but then according to Network Rail, even in these difficult economic times, long distance rail travel in Britain grew by 7% last year. Objectors to HS2 may claim that demand forecasts are over-egged, but really the evidence, if anything, points the other way.

But is an HSR on the eastern side of the country really needed?

Well, the new RUS concludes that the ECML has sufficient capacity to deal with expected growth in morning peak demand into London through to the horizon year of 2031. However, this is provided the existing strategy for the route is implemented – and this would entail some extensive four tracking (such as between Huntingdon and Peterborough) and other schemes that would ultimately cost several £bn, and would still not accommodate the expected growth in rail freight.

In any event, the report acknowledges that the analysis to date, which has examined capacity on the ECML in the morning peak period, may be insufficient: the most critical time period arises in the evening when strong long distance demand and the return commuter peak coincide. Actually, the East Coast has a day-long capacity problem. It already has more applications for long distance train paths than can be handled.

The report is also clear that trying to speed up services on the current East Coast Main Line is a rather fruitless exercise. Increasing the maximum permitted speed to 140 mile/h from the current 125 mile/h would only save five minutes on a journey from London to Edinburgh.

High-speed rail could help alleviate these problems in the longer term. Network Rail notes that relief from the Y-shaped network for the ECML is a long way off and that it is unclear in any case how many trains would actually run on the North East spur. Perhaps for the eastern side of the country, the current HSR plans are too little too late?

We would suggest that the difficult choices should be examined now. The costs and disruption entailed in a major line-of-route upgrade of the ECML should be compared with a strategy to introduce, progressively, an eastern corridor HSR line. An HSR line would bring the wider economic benefits highlighted by ANEC and could also (as we’ll discuss in another blog post) provide relief to the Great Eastern Main Line.