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Rethink Mids and North rail plans – Greengauge

High Speed Rail

Andrew Forster
01 June 2020
Piccadilly: tunnel
Piccadilly: tunnel
Freight: too many circuitous routes
Freight: too many circuitous routes


The Government should replace many of the existing rail projects proposed for the Midlands and North of England with projects that deliver bigger benefits for cities, intercity connections, and freight, says Greengauge. 

Greengauge, the organisation founded by transport consultant Jim Steer that helped put high-speed rail on the political map, makes the comments in its response to the National Infrastructure Commission’s call for evidence on rail priorities of the Midlands and the North. The NIC’s advice will inform the Government’s new rail plan for this part of England.

Among schemes the Government is  reviewing are mega-projects such as HS2 phase 2b, Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) and the Midlands Engine Rail improvements that include improvements in Birmingham.

Noting that HS2 phase 2b and NPR are not envisaged for delivery until the 2040s, Greengauge says there is a “huge gap” in the Government’s rail enhancement programme for the area, with a lack of investments in the 2020s and early 2030s. Investments in “this crucial interim period” are “all the more crucial now given the need for long-term economic recovery in the post-Covid world”. 

Greengauge’s submission builds on its Beyond HS2 report, published in May 2018, which recommended that HS2 be re-imagined as an X-shaped rather than Y-shaped network (LTT 08 Jun 18). It recommended upgrading the East Coast Main Line to 140mph operation with services from Scotland and northeast England to London continuing to use this route rather than running over HS2. That would free up the eastern arm of HS2 for cross-country services between the North East/Yorkshire and Birmingham, Cardiff and Bristol. 

An edited version of Greengauge’s response to some of the NIC’s key questions is set out below. 

NIC: Which set of rail investments do you believe would, together, best unlock capacity within the Midlands and the North? 

“Investment in upgrading city centre stations and the immediate access lines into them,” says Greengauge. “This is crucial to the success of NPR/HS2 Phase 2b and has not had the exposure (or the right approach) to date, even though it is exceedingly obvious that these are the locations where capacity constraints bite hardest. 

“Clearly the perspectives taken by planners of individual projects (HS2, NPR being stand-out cases) are unlikely to have chanced upon the best and most efficient solutions for city centres since they have a partial perspective. 

“Attempts to address the challenge that cities pose for new high/higher-speed intercity lines by attempting to create new off-centre, inaccessible, hub stations should in general be resisted. They will serve long-term to undermine the economic status of the cities they purport to serve and weaken rather than complement existing public transport networks which, for good reason, are city centre-focused.”

The above words will not please those backing the East Midlands Hub station proposal at Toton (see story below). Greengauge later goes on to recommend that HS2 services should serve Nottingham city centre, though it supports a conventional rail station at Toton. 

“With Northern Powerhouse Rail, the problem is a lack of attention to the need to expand capacity efficiently in city centres. The advantages of through station operation for city-regions as well as long distance services (fewer platforms are needed) is being overlooked.” Greengauge recently set out proposals for a tunnelled Manchester Piccadilly through station for inter-regional services (LTT 15 May, and summarised later in this article). 

Greengauge also seems to regard some of Midlands Connect’s Midlands Engine Rail proposals – a multi-billion pound programme of rail enhancements, many focused on Birmingham – as a missed opportunity. 

“Midlands Engine Rail does little to add capacity, except helpfully at [Birmingham] Moor Street station. There is a major unexploited opportunity to lift rail capacity across Birmingham. This would be achieved from better utilisation of the Moor Street-Snow Hill cross-city tunnel. This currently accommodates around nine trains/hour. But it should be possible to upgrade this to, say, 22-24tph.”

This would require a new short connection to be created on the western approaches to the city so that Birmingham’s HS2 station at Curzon Street could be accessed directly from the Black Country, Walsall and Wolverhampton.

Greengauge says a “related issue” is a weakness in current investment plans to address the need to create freight routes that minimise interaction with busy passenger routes. “Indirect and circuitous routing of railfreight is a problem that plagues the north of England and the West Midlands and hampers the important role that the logistics industry plays.”

NIC: Which set of rail investments do you believe would, together, best improve connectivity within the Midlands and the North? 

“HS2 Phase 2b and NPR score well on improving connectivity, as does the Trans-Pennine Route Upgrade (TRU) project and Midlands Rail Engine,” says Greengauge. “But all of these projects focus on city-city connectivity, which is only part of the challenge. Even then, the primary city-city connectivity needs from rail within the Midlands, which is a better Nottingham-

Birmingham connection, is not actually provided by HS2 – although it could be.”

It recommends “localised changes to the HS2 Phase 2b alignment”. “The currently planned HS2 alignment veers northwards towards Toton at the critical point as it approaches Nottingham. One of the DfT’s strategic alternatives to Phase 2b envisaged creating a Birmingham-Nottingham-East Coast Main Line (ECML) route that would in effect create a faster NE/SW axis and put Nottingham onto it – a complement to the route via Derby and Sheffield. This would be achieved by upgrading the Nottingham-Newark line and creating a SW-N connection with the ECML just north of Newark. 

“A combination of Phase 2b between Birmingham and Nottingham (with a conventional speed link to Toton to serve Mansfield) should be examined as a first stage, in conjunction with electrification of the Midland Main Line and the completion of a rail freight route (fully segregated from the ECML) between Peterborough and Newcastle.” 

NIC: Within the set of investments you identified, which individual investment(s) should be the highest priority? 

Greenguage prioritises the following: 

1. A national electrification programme for England and Wales applied to all main lines, strategic freight routes and the busiest commuter rail routes. “In England, the obvious starting points would be completion of a 100 per cent electrified trans-Pennine route (via Huddersfield – the TransPennine Upgrade scheme); and the completion of Midland Main Line electrification from Market Harborough to Nottingham, Sheffield and Leeds 

2. ‘Burning platform’ investments to redress operating constraints. “We give two key examples. The first, which brings benefits at a city and regional scale, is the plan to get ahead with creating a ‘superhub’ at Manchester Piccadilly with through underground platforms connected with the existing railway (and in the long-term with a re-specified NPR and HS2 Phase 2b). This frees up the newly-created surface connection between Piccadilly and Victoria stations [Ordsall Curve] for the expansion of a Manchester city-region network (in the style of Merseyrail Electrics). 

“The second falls into this category not because of current operational shortcomings but because of a potential missed opportunity when HS2 Phase1/2a opens. This is the upgrade, electrification and extension of the cross-city route in Birmingham (Snow Hill-Moor Street) needed to connect places with weaker economies in the Black Country and surrounding towns with the HS2 station at Curzon Street (which adjoins Moor Street).”

3. Major hub station upgrades. The most pressing would be: 

a. Preston, Carlisle and Glasgow Central on the West Coast Main Line 

b. Birmingham Moor Street to support the creation of HS2 into an X-shaped network 

c. Leeds, where incremental development is reaching its limit, and ahead of TransPennine Route Upgrade (TRU), NPR and HS2 Phase 2b implementation, a rebuild with a reduction in terminating trains/increase in cross-city operation and creation of a Leeds city-region metropolitan rail network is required (with electrification of the York/Selby-Leeds-Bradford Interchange lines). This may require a third running line into Leeds from the east.

4. First stages of the eastern leg of HS2. “This is a lengthy route, and its function and value as currently envisaged is going to be determined by the successful operation of a very intense high-speed service over the Birmingham-Euston Phase 1 section of HS2, which remains to be proven. However this issue is resolved, significant value can be derived from progressing two parts of the project – between Sheffield and Leeds (which requires a combination of new build and upgrade of existing lines) and between Birmingham and Nottingham (with an interim non-high-speed connection to Toton and Mansfield). The reasoning for this prioritisation is that this addresses the two main city-city connectivity challenges: the busiest city commuter connection in the North and the core east-west connection in the Midlands”

5. Reducing the London-Glasgow/Edinburgh journey time to 3h10. This requires a programme of investment north and south of the Scottish border (see story right) 

6. Three international connectivity schemes: (i) the western connection into Heathrow Airport. This should be used for an expanded set of rail connections direct to the airport from the Midlands (as well as the South West and South Wales)

(ii) an equivalent arrangement for Manchester where there is also a western airport access scheme that is a necessary concomitant of the first ‘burning platform’ scheme for Manchester city centre noted above?

(iii) a new lower Thames rail tunnel for use by Essex-Kent passenger rail services and railfreight using the Channel Tunnel, allowing it to avoid London.

‘National rail plan needed’

The Government should prepare a national rail plan, not one focused only on the Midlands and the north of England, says Greengauge. 

Responding to the National Infrastructure Commission’s call for evidence on the rail needs of the Midlands and North, Greengauge says: “While the geography to be covered by the integrated plan represents a very large part of England (covering five of its eight regions), the scope of questions that the NIC is posing is even broader. 

“It includes questions on connectivity with Scotland and internationally (rail links to ports and airports). 

“So, while the focus may be on the North and Midlands, questions of capacity and connectivity with London, with its major airports, with the ports and the Channel Tunnel in southeast England and the east of England also arise. 

“With an ambition to level-up the economy, an integrated rail plan might as well be comprehensive.This means adding in important connectivity corridors for the North and Midlands to Wales and southwest England too. 

“Frankly it would be inexcusable if it doesn’t.”

‘Electrify the Welsh network’

Greengauge recommends electrifying much of the Welsh rail network on a reverse ‘E’ plan. The routes to be covered should be:

(i) the South Wales Main Line, initially to Swansea, later to Carmarthen, Haverfordwest and Milford Haven 

(ii) the Newport-Crewe Welsh Borders line, which should also be upgraded for higher speeds 

(iii) Shrewsbury-Aberystwyth (after Wolverhampton-Shrewsbury electrification) 

(iv) the North Wales Coast line to Llandudno/Holyhead

Electric freight network urged

Greengauge proposes an electrified railfreight network linked to freight interchanges serving cities with over 250,000 population. 

Noting that the West Coast and East Coast main lines are already wired, it says: “What’s missing is the electrification of lines where freight takes diversionary routes to allow high-speed passenger operation and to access the key ports at Felixstowe, London Gateway and Southampton, and the creation of suitable strategic freight routes across the North and the West Midlands. 

“For trans-Pennine freight, a route using the Calder Valley and Copy Pit lines together with a new northern access to Liverpool via Ormskirk should be created – and the route electrified. 

“In the West Midlands there is a need to identify suitable cross-conurbation strategic freight routes that avoid the current practice of lengthy complex routing for freight that entail double-backs and long journey times with diesel traction. Currently such secondary routes are unfortunately more likely to be seen as a low-cost means of expanding local passenger rail coverage.” 

‘Scrap Lower Thames Crossing road’

The Government should scrap its Lower Thames Crossing road tunnel and replace it with a rail crossing, says Greengauge. The rail crossing could be used by Kent-Essex passenger services and freight trains to/from the Channel Tunnel (see point 6(iii) in the main article above).

‘Increase track work during downturn’ 

Network Rail should take the opportunity of the depressed demand on the rail network caused by Covid-19 to conduct a major programme of engineering works. “There is a need to use the period where rail demand is diminished post Covid-19 (i.e. perhaps the next two to five years) to continue and expand Network Rail’s programme of engineering works, making use of extended possessions with service diversions to make optimum use of this period,” says Greengauge. 


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