It is interesting to see that as the debate on the future of High Speed Two rages on, some key lessons from past high speed rail projects on the continent; chiefly from France, are being ignored and passed over, in spite of their relevance in this debate.
While the French TGV network has been hugely successful, it has also failed to live up to its full potential. In a lot of respects. It is not only a lack of entrepreneurialism on the part of the SNCF that accounts for this, but also poor choices made at the design stage. One of them was to limit the number of intermediate stations served and, consequently, the number of connections to regional rail networks. A fine example of this policy is the Picardie TGV station, approximately 60 miles north of Paris, built smack in between Amiens and St Quentin to serve both towns. Yet the station’s isolation from the local rail network and the resulting absence of transfer possibilities has meant that use never reached the expected level. The station is locally known as the “beetroots’ station” – and rarely sees more than a thousand passengers in a given day.
It is therefore sad to see that exactly the same mistake has been repeated during the design of our High Speed Two routes. The proposed Toton ‘East Midlands Hub’ station of Phase Two of the project is a perfect example of this. While building a railway spur to link it with the wider East Midlands regional services is possible, this has not been considered to date. The obvious alternative to this scheme could be to link Derby station directly to High Speed Two, by means of short spurs to enable trains to serve Derby station.
New platforms dedicated to high speed trains could be built to the east of the present site. This far more attractive location would offer more transfer opportunities, provide opportunities for redevelopment in Derby and increase the attractiveness of High Speed Two services. Indeed, a prime objective of the project should be to use up the new infrastructure as much as practically possible to maximise revenue generation. Exactly the same consideration applies to the decision to locate Sheffield station out of town in Meadowhall, which is located five miles away from Sheffield city centre. This utterly negates one of the key benefits of high speed rail, which is to allow passengers to reach city centres directly.
However, there is one case which is rather different. An important railway project currently on the cards, and supported by a variety of local authorities, is the East-West railway project between Oxford and Cambridge. It aim is to re-open routes closed during the 1960s and provide a new cross country link north of London. If the plan goes head, Its lines are due to cross those of High Speed Two near Bicester.
So there is an opportunity here indirectly to extend the benefits of High Speed Two by building a ‘Buckinghamshire Parkway’ station. This station would enable the easy transfer of passengers from Oxford, Milton Keynes and Cambridge to high speed services to destinations further afield, bringing extra passengers and revenue onto high speed two services. It can also be argued that it is only fair for Chiltern inhabitants to be able to use the new line that will cross their territory, since they will put up with considerable disruption during its construction. This station could be designed to enable non- stopping trains to pass at high speed by having two central tracks reserved for them and two side tracks for stopping services.
The lack of co-ordination between High Speed Two and the needs and opportunities of the national rail network is also very well illustrated by another example. The current ‘hub’ of the British rail network is Birmingham New Street station. While a refurbishment project is currently taking place, this amounts to little more than expanding the shopping centre located above the station and building a new passenger concourse. The number of platforms will remain the same – their tight curves complicating passenger movements and creating delays.
Yet an opportunity to provide much needed extra capacity for the Birmingham railway hub exists . It would involve the building of a new station in the Eastside area with a north-south orientation, to which all services currently using New Street station would be transferred. An added benefit of this project is that it would enable high speed services to go through Birmingham. In practical terms, this would means that instead of two half-empty trains serving Birmingham and Manchester separately, a single full train stopping at both Birmingham and Manchester could be timetabled instead, maximising revenue, connections and services opportunities.
An indirect benefit of this bolder network-centred approach would be to enable the vast majority of cross-country rail services to be plugged into High Speed Two, following the electrification of their lines. Trains from Reading could join the line through a connection near the Buckinghamshire Parkway station proposed earlier, while trains from Bristol would join the line at Birmingham. Cities as diverse as Bristol, Reading, Aberdeen or Bournemouth would be able to draw some benefits from the project, providing opportunities for the further growth of cross-country traffic and extra revenue streams – and allowing the vast potential offered by the new line to be fully reaped.
The vision behind High Speed Two is commendable, since an overhaul of Britain infrastructure to make it fit for the 22nd century is overdue. But joined-up thinking needs to be at the core of the project. The last thing that is needed is an airplane on track that won’t contribute to the regeneration of our great cities. What Britain need is a masterpiece that will be at the centre of a rejuvenated and modernised railway network that would make its Victorian creators proud.