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Saturday 12 March 2011

TPA And HS2 – The View From The East Coast

While much heat has been generated by the non-job holders at the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA) over the HS2 High Speed Rail project, their favoured alternative to a new line has addressed only the West Coast Main Line (WCML) out of London’s Euston terminus to Birmingham and the North West.

And this suits the TPA fine, as they can compare the total cost of HS2 with a much lower cost for upgrading the WCML (which, as I’ve noted, may not be enough). However, HS2 in its entirety relieves not just the WCML, but also features a connection to Sheffield and Leeds, continuing to join the East Coast Main Line (ECML), and thereby relieve congestion on the latter route as well.

Moreover, serving Sheffield enables relief of the Midland Main Line (MML): HS2 frees up capacity on three rail corridors, not just one. The TPA, in not making this clear at the outset, is being dishonest about the comparative cost of the project.

Capacity is at a premium on both the ECML and MML, but it is the former where constraints are being felt already: this can be seen from Network Rail’s East Coast Main Line 2016 Capacity Review (available HERE [.pdf]). The very fact that a capacity review has to take place underlines the immediacy of the problem.

And there are a series of grim observations in the study: the section between Peterborough and Huntingdon is so constrained that for most of the day, slower freight trains are barred from it. Much freight between Peterborough and Doncaster has to be routed via Lincoln – away from the ECML – which makes for a significantly slower journey.

It gets worse: from Northallerton to Newcastle – almost fifty miles – NR concede is “already approaching full capacity” and any increase in services “is likely to make demand exceed capacity”. Fortunately, NR has also identified measures to solve this dilemma – being beyond the northern end of HS2, the new line will not be able to help, unless extended further.

In the short to medium term, NR has measures in place to provide more capacity and remove bottlenecks: grade separation (flyovers if you like) are to be provided at Hitchin, where the line to Cambridge diverges, and north of Doncaster, to enable local freight traffic to be kept clear of the ECML. But, as with recent upgrades to the WCML, these are merely in the category of sticking plaster.

Without HS2, NR will have to “Estimate the economic value of capacity trade-offs” [page 35] rather more: in other words, give preference to the trains that make NR the most money. As there are already more demands for paths than paths available, someone will lose out. Freight is profitable, but passenger services are heavily loaded. Hard choices lie ahead.

Not that the TPA is telling you this, of course.

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