The capacity benefits of HS2

People are now beginning to understand that the main reason for investing in the new North-South rail line is the improved capacity and connectivity it will bring to the major cities served on the core network. Writes Andrew McNaughton, Technical Director of HS2 Ltd

Both the Department for Transport, in its Strategic Case for HS2, and Network Rail as owner and manager of the existing GB rail network, have published substantial reports on the capacity question. In this article, I want to look in more detail at the capacity issues that HS2 addresses and examine the challenges of the growing railway and the opportunities the extra capacity this investment brings.

Back to basics

The initial HS2 “Y” network is being delivered in two phases. Phase One will run between London and the West Midlands. It is now in the Parliamentary stage with the deposit of a hybrid Bill on 25 November that will give planning permission to build and operate the new line. This phase also includes a connection to the classic network near Lichfield on the West Coast main line (WCML) so that, from 2026, HS2 trains can travel directly to Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow.

We are currently consulting on the preferred route of the second phase that extends the line in two arms – the western one to Crewe, Wigan and Manchester and the eastern one through the East Midlands and South Yorkshire to Leeds and York. This phase is planned to be in operation by 2033.

Research from the Government and Network Rail demonstrates that there is strong and continuing growth in rail travel in Great Britain. This is driven by population increasing (with a central forecast for England alone of some 30% by 2050), economic growth and public policy to use more sustainable transport modes. And all of the evidence so far shows that developments in mobile information technology and telecommunications have led to people travelling more not less.

West coast crunch

Whilst the WCML is not the only long distance line facing a capacity crunch in the coming years, it is the one where three factors combine to make the impacts come earliest and most severely.

First, it serves half of the ten biggest city regions – Central Scotland, Liverpool, Manchester and London. Since the, albeit curtailed, WCML Upgrade was completed in 2008, long distance travel aided by more frequent and attractive services has grown very strongly indeed.

Secondly, the same tracks are in demand for rapidly increasing commuting into those major conurbations and to serve the growing region centred on Milton Keynes and Northampton. Milton Keynes, in particular, already sees very frequent trains taking up much of the available capacity – it’s just that they are busy long distance ones passing through without stopping!

The WCML is also the primary long distance freight artery of the country with good rail access to the freight terminals placed in the major cities. Some 40% of the nation’s rail freight needs access to the WCML for part or all of its journey.

This combination of fast, commuter and freight trains means that the practical capacity of the WCML is being used already and, as with any system being run at or near full capacity, reliability is vulnerable to any hiccup. Like any long established, mixed traffic railway, its theoretical capacity is reduced by the mix of train speeds, stopping patterns and location/configuration of stations and junctions with all the conflicting movements that inevitably brings.

Of course existing trains can be – are currently being – lengthened and pricing can be used to some degree to incentivise people to travel at less busy times. Adding carriages to the Pendolino trains and potentially altering the mix of first and standard classes can add some 150-200 seats to every long distance train. And turning the commuter network into one where 12 carriage trains in the peak are the norm makes common sense.

More is needed

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Windows of new HS2 trains could include ‘smart glass’

That is the recipe to manage growth until HS2 comes on stream, but is not a longer term-solution. Widening the existing railway through the multiplicity of cities, towns and villages which have built up around the existing railway is simply impractical without dramatic demolition. And there would be unimaginable disruption to rail services while trying.

So it is generally agreed that the country needs a new north-south railway to provide the capacity our growing country needs. And as other countries have found, building it high speed provides new connectivity with greatly reduced travel times at modest additional cost. We have shown that the incremental cost of a high speed railway over a conventional one is no more than 10%.

The first phase of HS2 will be most useful in releasing capacity to recast the south end of the WCML and the corridor through Coventry into Birmingham. The former will then accommodate the growth into London and the latter high frequency metro style services that Centro envisages. The Milton Keynes / Northampton area could see the frequent fast services the growing population of that expanding area will warrant. It is perfectly practical to see a fast service of London – Watford – Milton Keynes – Rugby/ Northampton at a ‘metro’ frequency of 10 minutes or less.

Both of these fast services would naturally continue beyond Rugby towards Coventry and Birmingham Airport, and northwards serving the principal Trent Valley towns. These in turn, with the introduction of Phase Two of HS2, could continue, in the capacity then released, to provide frequent services towards Stafford and Stoke-upon-Trent. We should see Milton Keynes as the new hub with trains heading towards many points of the compass – London, Oxford, Wolverhampton and Birmingham, Stafford and Liverpool, Stoke-upon-Trent and Manchester. This is simply not possible without the capacity HS2 releases along with the parallel investment in the existing network to which the government continually emphasises it is committed.

Additional services

This is not only about capacity in terms of raw seats or trains, it is about fashioning an attractive timetable maximising connections at the hubs along the route. For example, Watford connects through to Clapham junction and Croydon to the south and Milton Keynes will connect to Oxford on the about to be restored and modernised East-West route. The list is significantly long; think of the connections at Rugby, Nuneaton and Tamworth.

Then there are the potential areas which could be served for which there is no capacity today – Shrewsbury via Wolverhampton, for example.

We estimate that the nine non-stop train paths initially replaced by HS2 services could be replaced by a greater number of freight and passenger trains – the latter particularly serving Milton Keynes – because the end-to- end speed differential between the fastest and slowest trains would be reduced.

The exact traffic mix in the future between freight, medium-distance and regional passenger trains will dictate the practical reliable capacity. A rule of thumb has been that HS2 releases around 11 train paths per hour on the WCML fast lines. Meanwhile HS2 itself, designed as a high capacity system with longer trains all running at exactly the same speed, will provide twice the seating capacity of those WCML fast lines.

Of course the industry, led by Network Rail, will not be proposing an exact timetable until we are nearer HS2 opening in 2026. However, discussions are already taking place to prioritise the valuable space on the southern part of the WCML for when that day eventually arrives.

More to come

Phase Two of HS2 opens up greater possibilities again. Extending the western leg of the Y Network to near Wigan by- passes all the capacity constrained areas south of Manchester and really increases the opportunities for freight. Every container freight train is the equivalent of taking 40 lorries off our roads. So to add one or two additional freight paths every hour through the day quickly adds up to thousands of long distance lorry journeys that are not needed.

It is after opening the second phase of HS2 that a more radical approach to use of the released capacity of the WCML can really be introduced, bringing limited-stop direct services to places which cannot be served today. Exactly where will need to be the result of wide scale consultation and analysis of potential markets by the industry and government nearer the time, but it is not hard to see centres like Blackpool and other East Lancashire towns benefitting. And with these trains also stopping at places such as Milton Keynes, a new classic rail network of direct journey opportunities by fast rail will offer a credible, low-carbon, attractive alternative to the car.

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Artist impression of Manchester Piccadilly Station.

Meanwhile HS2, with its capability to run pairs of 500+ seat trains as a single service, could serve even more destinations than has been included in the current business case. With classic line electrification, Chester and North Wales could easily be added to Warrington as destinations for single classic-compatible trains separating from Liverpool services at Crewe. Of course it is likely that there will need to be some capacity improvements on the WCML immediately north of Crewe but that will be necessary anyway to realise the freight growth potential from the new Liverpool port investment nearing realisation. And, rather than terminating at Preston, HS2 trains could easily be extended north to provide faster direct services from London and Birmingham to stations towards Carlisle.

The Y-network also releases significant capacity on the Midland and East Coast routes south of Leicester and Leeds/York respectively. Although much focus initially has been on the potential for meeting outer London and longer distance commuting growth, opportunities to introduce new long distance flows will also exist. For example, with limited infrastructure investment, major cities such as Bradford and Huddersfield could see services to London once again directed on the main line through Wakefield, giving the latter potentially more trains per hour to London than even today. These would complement the already planned frequent quick regional connections to the HS2 stations at Leeds, Meadowhall and Toton.

All the time, we need to remember that HS2 is adding huge capacity and giving us the chance to connect a great number of towns and cities in the North and Midlands to the South. It is not just about speeding up journeys between the major conurbations.

Another exciting chapter is about to be started in the HS2 story; that is exploring the case for journey time reductions north from Leeds and Manchester on the WCML from Preston over the ‘northern hills’ of Shap and Beattock. This is where it currently runs at near-capacity through the timetabling challenge of combining intercity, stopping passenger and freight trains.

So the joint study recently announced by the Westminster and Scottish governments looking at extending HS2 to Scotland will be considering capacity as well as speed – to create a stronger and better backbone linking the cities of the Scottish central belt with their trading partners of northern England, the Midlands, and then on to London and the south. After all, why shouldn’t the twenty-first century journey from Liverpool to Glasgow be quick, frequent and attractive – we just have to overcome the consequences of nineteenth century history.