Low-speed thoughts on High-Speed Rail

Paul Salveson

The Salvo has consistently argued against HS2, suggesting that it may actually disadvantage the North rather than make it the land of milk, honey and tripe that the Government and HS2 supporters tell us. If we had a referendum on HS2 – versus investing in the existing network – my guess is that about 90% of us plain Northern folk would reject HS2. What do I base that on? Yes, sheer prejudice and hearsay, pretty much what most supporters of HS2 base their case on. But there is a middle way, with some people saying HS2 No thanks, HS3 yes please. And there is more sense to this, building a new (or at least new in part) railway from the Mersey to the Humber. This is a scheme particularly liked by politicians in a hurry, such as Mr Burnham. If the south can have Crossrail and all that investment, we’ll have our own high-speed trains, the argument goes. And the comparative times of getting say from London to Reading compared with Slawit to Croston get trotted out (15 minutes compared with four days, or so).

Yet the more I think about, the less I’m convinced that a new Trans-Pennine route is either needed or desirable (does that mean the same thing?).  The existing Trans-Pennine routes (and there are three, Standedge, Hope Valley and Calder Valley) undoubtedly suffer from congestion, coughs and sniffles, aches and pains generally. Yet a typical Trans-Pennine (TPE) train on the Standedge route via Huddersfield will be formed of three coaches. Three! It almost doesn’t qualify as a real train down south, where 12 coach formations are increasingly the norm.  New trains are on order for TPE which will provide additional capacity and improved quality, but you don’t need more frequent trains. Four trains an hour between Manchester and Leeds ought to be enough, with suitable capacity extending to 12 coach formations in the fullness of time. Oh, but the trains are so slow. Well, try driving from Manchester to Leeds on the M62, pretty much any time of the day. The train beats the pants off driving and you could with some intelligent civil engineering get the Manchester – Leeds running time down a bit more, even keeping a stop at Huddersfield.

We need to grow up about ‘high-speed rail’. Whatever the computer models tell us, very high speed in itself should not be the ultimate goal. HS2 is a good example of what could have part of a been a sensible strategy to relieve congestion and boost the regional economies of the Midlands and North ending up being a politician’s fetish which risks isolating large, struggling conurbations on the route, which won’t be served by the new line. In the context of the UK, high-speed rail only really makes sense for London to central Scotland but engineered at fast but not environmentally-damaging ultra high-speeds, and ensuring far better connectivity with the ‘conventional’ network. And no ‘dead ends’ – be they at Leeds, Manchester or Euston.

As for  ‘HS3’ (or ‘Northern Powerhouse Rail’) – we are sagely informed by the likes of George Osborne that it will kick-start the North’s economy, allowing all these high-flying business executives get from Liverpool to Hull in quicksticks. Oh really? There’s certainly a strong business flow between Manchester and Leeds but a journey of say 45 minutes on the conventional route in a comfortable new train should do more than meet the demand that’s undoubtedly there. And you can enjoy the view of what is one of the North’s more scenic routes (important! Train journeys could and should be enjoyable experiences).

But the really big problem with HS3 is that it will further boost the cities that are doing OK (Manchester, Leeds, York) but do very little if anything for the towns and cities which are on their knees. It could make their position worse as more economic power is sucked into Manchester and Leeds. Think Bradford, Wigan, Bolton, Dewsbury and so many more. Have you been to Accrington recently? Sadly it’s becoming typical of a huge swathe of Northern towns, and no wonder they voted ‘leave’ in droves. Not as a protest against the EU but more as an expression of sheer frustration with the establishment.

And the reality is that the huge sums that would need to be spent on HS3 will come out of money which would otherwise go into the ‘conventional’ network. It seems quite clear that recent Government decisions to go ahead with HS2 and CrossRail 2 while abandoning electrification were not unrelated.

So, Mr Clever Clogs, if we don’t get HS3, what is the alternative? Well it’s here:

A low-speed response to High-Speed Rail up North

The North suffered from some disastrous decisions in the 1970s which included some line closures but also dis-investment in surviving routes, as many lines were singled or truncated with passengers forced to change (the ‘Ormskirk Phenomenon’). Some important projects have helped redress those mistakes, including new infrastructure (Windsor Link and now the Ordsall Curve in Manchester/Salford). However, capacity remains a big problem on many parts of the network and the Ordsall Curve will, on its own, contribute to congestion between Deansgate and Piccadilly, especially as the Government is ‘reviewing’ plans for additional tracks on that corridor. At the same time, the Standedge route between Stalybridge, Huddersfield and Leeds is pretty much at capacity. The Calder Valley route is similarly busy, but while Standedge trains are mostly three cars, Calder Valley services are often formed of just two. So an obvious win is to get more trains – far more than what is already on order. And build them in the UK.

But the infrastructure does need addressing, not least to allow more freight as well as local, stopping services to share routes via Stanedge and Hope Valley. Back in the 1890s the London and North Western Railway realised that its’ Standedge route was getting hopelessly congested and did several things – effectively quadrupling the line from Stalybridge to Leeds, with the Friezland Loop east of Stalybridge to Diggle, where a new tunnel was needed, with four tracks continuing to Huddersfield and down to Mirfield. The ‘Leeds New Line’ opened in 1900 to provide a sinuous but reasonably fast route into Leeds avoiding Dewsbury. All of this capacity was stripped out by BR in the 1960s and 70s. Something needs to be put back – using some of what’s there and perhaps some new formation. But not an entirely new route. At the same time, capacity on the Calder Valley Line – and the absurdly slow Copy Pit route to Burnley – needs addressing. Electrification is essential – more capacity, faster speeds, better acceleration.

The Woodhead Route is a huge opportunity waiting for a good fairy to come along and bring it back to life. It has huge potential for both freight and passenger and if you really wanted a new and quite fast route from Manchester to Leeds you could get it by heading east out of Manchester and then a new formation north near Dunford Bridge.

But the really big prize, which would transform the rail network of West and North Yorkshire, is connecting Bradford’s two railways, which terminate within half a mile of each other on the edges of the city centre. This relatively short link would allow trains from Manchester and Halifax to call at a central station in Bradford then head out to Leeds via Shipley without the slow and capacity-hungry fiasco of reversing. Some Skipton and Carlisle trains from Leeds could run via New Pudsey and Bradford then on to Shipley (north curve) and off to Keighley and beyond. More intercity services which currently terminate at Leeds could run out to Bradford on a loop.

Whilst in that neck of the woods, re-opening Skipton – Colne is a much-needed project which would help in the economic revival of North east Lancashire. It’s 10 miles of railway which would have a far bigger impact than purely local traffic, enabling journeys from Yorkshire towns such as Skipton, Keighley and Bingley to reach east Lancashire, Preston and Blackpool. For North-east Lancashire it would afford direct access to Leeds complementing the existing service via Copy Pit. And forget all the crap about electrification being old hat: it should form part of the successful Aire Valley electric network, running through to Blackpool. Further east, York – Beverley/Hull is a route that should never have closed and needs rebuilding.

For the North-West, the region managed to get in before the shutters came down on electrification so Liverpool/ Manchester – Blackpool is either done or nearly. Yet there is so much more that needs doing. Again, major infrastructure projects are needed to provide extra capacity. Back in the 1950s BR was going to provide a flyover at Euxton Junction but it never happened. There are several pinch points that need this approach, including Euxton, Piccadilly ‘throat’, Slade Lane and Heaton Norris (between Piccadilly and Stockport) and probably Edgeley Junction just south of Stockport. The planned quadrupling between Piccadilly and Deansgate (now ‘under review’) is a key project which must go ahead.

Extending the Merseyrail network to its obvious destination points (Preston, Wigan – and possibly to Manchester) and Wrexham have already been mentioned.  Several routes that were singled need full double-tracking. These include Blackburn – Bolton, Kirkby – Wigan, Ormskirk – Preston, Kirkham – Blackpool South and Rose Grove – Colne (and on to Skipton). The Cumbrian Coast Line also needs a full re-appraisal to cater for expansion at Sellafield and more tourism.

A nice wish-list you might say but wouldn’t cost more than the various HS3 options and would bring far wider benefit to the North than just Leeds and Manchester. And it could all be delivered incrementally and relatively fast compared with HS3. Comments welcome.