Fast tracks: plans are being laid for a high-speed railway from London to Birmingham. It could be followed by a network of similar lines.
Up until a couple of years ago the return leg of a trip to Paris was a reminder of British railway inadequacies. Before the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, now known as High Speed One, was built, you sped through northern France at more than 300km/h before disappearing into the Channel Tunnel, only to travel at a disappointing crawl on the UK side. Now, only the most jaded of euro-commuters would not feel genuinely impressed by the speed of the journey to London St Pancras.
The success, albeit an expensive one--67 miles of railway for 5.2 billion [pounds sterling]--has left politicians with an enthusiasm for whizzy things on rails. They're environmentally friendlier than whooshy things in the air, you see. And big infrastructure projects are a good way of building your economy out of recession.
The UK'S second high-speed rail line, predictably named High Speed Two, officially became a possibility at the beginning of this year, when the Department for Transport created a company, again called High Speed Two, to develop plans. The company's first task is to produce a proposal for a route between London and the West Midlands, and "potentially beyond", by the end of the year.
The report will consider the large question marks that are present--funding, potential economic benefits, the route, the stations, interchanges, interoperability and rolling stock technology. It has therefore got the rail industry, and a lot of other people, chattering. Double-decker high-speed trains shuttling between London and Birmingham at more than 300km/h would impress even more than High Speed One.
Perhaps nowhere is the enthusiasm for a new high-speed line greater than in Scotland. "Potentially beyond" is the crucial part of High Speed Two's remit as far as the Scottish government is concerned. It has set up a stakeholder group to handle the development of the line at the Scottish end. Speaking at the conference High-Speed Rail--The Scottish Opportunity earlier this month, Stewart Stevenson, the Scottish minister for transport infrastructure, said he was confident that a high-speed line from London to Scotland would deliver economic benefits, environmental advantages, more network capacity, and shorter journey times.
In places where high-speed rail has been installed, such as between Paris and Lyons, air travel has "shrivelled on the vine", said Stevenson. "We want that kind of modal shift off the airplanes onto the railways here," he added, "and we're committed to maximising the benefit for Scotland."
The Scottish fear is that construction of the line would start at London, progress north and, by the time it reaches the Scottish border, money and motivation would be low, and a compromise line would be built. High Speed Two would be more about linking the Midlands and North of England to London than about linking Scotland to the South of England.
Alastair Watson, chair of the Strathclyde Partnership for Transport, believes a full line from London to Scotland would have the greatest environmental and economic benefits. He says: "A new high-speed line must come to Glasgow and Edinburgh, and we must have simultaneous construction. When work starts in London, it must start in Scotland too. It would create thousands of jobs in construction and engineering. The motorway was the 20th century's answer to our transport network and high-speed rail will be the 21st century's answer."
Julie Mills is director of Greengauge21, a political pressure group that seeks to advance high-speed rail in the UK. Greengauge21 has been banging the drum about the environmental benefits of high-speed rail travel since 2006. Mills says a journey by high-speed rail has a quarter of the carbon emissions of air travel and a third of the emissions of car travel.
A common criticism of high-speed rail is that increasing speeds of trains from 200km/h to 300km/h requires a doubling of energy requirements. Mills dismisses this, and says there is strong operational evidence to suggest otherwise. The Japanese Shinkansen train, she says, requires only 20% more energy per seat per kilometre than conventional rolling stock. "High-speed trains tend to be much higher capacity, and have a higher load factor. Their aerodynamic design to reduce drag is also another factor," she says.
Mills says that the current focus is to build up evidence to support the construction of a line between London and the West Midlands. But Greengauge's next report, due out this summer, goes a lot further. It will contain details of a 40-year strategy to build five high-speed rail corridors, giving due consideration to industry and network issues. The proposed routes are: London-Birmingham-Manchester; LondonCambridge-North East; LondonBristol-Cardiff; Trans-Pennine; and Anglo-Scottish.
Mills says: "There is a need for a clear strategy, and that should include Scotland as well. A network could start with Edinburgh to Glasgow as well as London to Birmingham."
Whichever lines are built in whatever order, high-speed rail won't be cheap. The most recent information is contained in the report Because Transport Matters, published in 2008 by consultancy Atkins, which estimates that it would cost 31 billion [pounds sterling] to build a high-speed rail network in the UK--a massive investment.
The largest current rail infrastructure project is Crossrail, which will cross London east to west at a cost of 13 billion [pounds sterling].
Construction of the line started last month, after decades of wrangling over the route and costs. Crossrail is funded by central government, borrowing against future ticket sales, and by raising local taxes. It is likely that the next high-speed line will be funded in a similar way.
MAGLEV 'COULD LINK ALL THE MAIN CITIES'
UK Ultraspeed hopes to build on current interest in high-speed rail to aid its promotion of maglev technology. The company is advancing the case for a London-to-Glasgow maglev route.
Chief executive Dr Alan James says: "It will be crunch time for high-speed rail after the next general election. We have the right combination of efficiency and capacity to be the solution."
UK Ultraspeed's proposed route uses the German magnetic levitation Transrapid technology. This consists of a fixed guideway, either at ground level or elevated up to 20m, housing an electromagnetic linear motor. The vehicles levitate above the guideway and are steered by magnetic "cushions". They are propelled and slowed by variable electric current passed through the linear motor.
The only operating Transrapid maglev railway is in Shanghai--the 30km line transports passengers from the airport to the city centre in eight minutes. The line was opened in December 2003. A plan to build a maglev line from Munich airport to the city centre was abandoned last year because of rising costs.
UK Ultraspeed is proposing a route shaped like an S through the UK, starting either at Heathrow airport or at the Lea Valley in north London. The train, which would achieve speeds of up to 500km/h and carry up to 500 people, would go on to Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Teesside, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow, in a total journey time of 2 hours 35 minutes. James says it would cause a "transformation of the country's economic geography".
"Maglev can go over the Pennines instead of requiring a tunnel," says James. "Only Maglev has a viable economic case for linking all the major cities. We have to do better than building a sub-standard TGV programme, and we do more for less cost."
UK Ultraspeed's route would cost 30 million [pounds sterling] per kilometre to build, cheaper than High Speed One's cost of 56.42 million [pounds sterling] per kilometre, "simply because we avoid most of the tunnelling", says James. If a Conservative party proposal to spend 15.6 billion [pounds sterling] on high-speed rail was adopted, this would buy a maglev railway from London to Manchester and half of the way to Leeds, he says.
But there are strong arguments against the maglev proposal. The current government dismissed maglev technology in its 2007 white paper, Delivering a Sustainable Railway, and recent reports indicate that the technology is still not considered viable. The main problems remain the largely unproven nature of the technology, and interoperability issues.
James admits that the Shanghai line is a prototype, and that the "intercity breakthrough" is yet to arrive for the technology. But he argues that the precedent for high-speed rail in the UK, High Speed One to the Channel Tunnel, is a segregated self-contained system from end to end. Similar lines would also have to be separated out to take full advantage of the speed and reliability benefits. They would require the same expensive work in and around stations that maglev needs.
THE FRENCH CONNECTION
France, with its TGV, has a wealth of experience of high-speed railways. After opening the first high-speed line between Paris and Lyons in 1981, the network has grown considerably, and the French government recently announced that a further 2,000km will be built.
Michel Leboeuf, head of the long-distance and major projects department at SNCF, says that the lines are "a victim of their own success". SNCF has capacity problems on its high-speed routes, some of which will not be sorted out until the mid-2020s. In retrospect, he says, the company should have planned for the possibility of additional lines by setting aside spare space alongside the tracks.
"We were too single-minded about passengers, and didn't consider freight," he says. "For example, we could have applied for four tracks around Lyons, to include freight, but we did not."
SNCF is now causing controversy by applying to build an extra two lines for freight around Lyons. Leboeuf also wishes that the company had thought more about the smaller towns and cities on the routes. "Everywhere that we build high-speed rail, the response from people is for more. So, once you build a line, you had better plan for a full-scale country-wide network, rather than continuously implementing services in a piecemeal way," he says.
Leboeuf says: "In France TGV is the low-cost airline. In the UK, you really have a country which is designed for high-speed rail," he says.
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|Publication:||Professional Engineering Magazine|
|Date:||Jun 24, 2009|
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