Monday, June 23, 2014

HS3 - Heavy Spin 3?

Today's speech in Manchester by George Osborne, outlining a proposed HS3 Manchester to Leeds railway, promises to continue the legacy of regeneration brought about by HS1 (formerly the Channel Tunnel Rail Link) and HS2. But is it all that it seems?

Osborne was accompanied by civil engineer Sir David Higgins, chair of HS2 Ltd and formerly of Network Rail. Higgins' job seemed to be to stand behind Osborne and point out that when George said "new railway line", what he actually meant was "no new line per se, but upgrades to the existing route". 

This, in a way, makes sense - Manchester and Leeds are already linked by two existing inter-regional railways: the Calder Valley route from Manchester Victoria via Rochdale, Summit Tunnel Todmorden and a reversal at Bradford Interchange, and the faster Standedge route, through Stalybridge, Huddersfield and Dewsbury. The latter is primary used by First TransPennine Express - a hermaphroditic franchise which attempts to cater for both long-distance travellers and commuters and generally fails both, miserably, no thanks to decisions taken over the past decade by the Department for Transport with regard to rolling stock procurement. 

Where would a new TransPennine railway line go? The obvious answer is between the two - following the Saddleworth Moor route of the congested M62. There is no point in us considering the frequently called-for reopening of the Woodhead route via Dinting to Sheffield, as this would not achieve Osborne's goal of linking with Leeds. As we've seen with the plans for both phases of HS2, any new railway line is likely to be met with much resistance by the usual unholy alliance of NIMBYs, Nigel Farage-worshippers, MailOnline commenters, and parish council bores. The cost would also likely be high - with little benefit, compared to HS2, which is necessary in part to replace the West Coast Main Line, rapidly approaching its 200th birthday and creaking at the seams, despite a £8.8bn upgrade project (which was four times over-budget and still fell way short of its original intentions). 

So, the answer is fairly obvious - improve what we've got. I'm not normally an advocate for such a conservative (small C) approach, however the Standedge route actually gives us this opportunity. The route possesses two major feats of engineering - the two-track Saddleworth Viaduct, which crosses the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, and the two-track 3 mile, 60 yard long Standedge Tunnel. However, the tunnel is parallel to two more disused single-track railway tunnels, both of which are maintained by Network Rail, and one of which is used as an evacuation route from the main double-track tunnel. 

So one of the main engineering obstacles on the route has already been conquered, more than 150 years ago. Admittedly, major work undoubtedly needs doing to the old tunnels, in order to bring them up to a standard whereby they could be used by modern, fast trains, but they are remarkably straight, end to end, and could play an essential role by providing a four-tracked TransPennine route for nearly four miles, if further track relaying was carried out on the Huddersfield side of the tunnel. 

And where to then? The cheapest option would be to continue eastwards through Huddersfield, upgrading the route to allow for a higher line speed en route. After Huddersfield, the line joins the Calder Valley route at Mirfield (more four-tracking could take place here), before heading eastwards towards Wakefield. However, trains currently make for Leeds via Dewsbury. I'd propose running them through Wakefield Kirkgate and then building a spur diverging between there and Normanton, whereby the trains would join HS2 for the remainder of their journey to Leeds. This would give the added advantage of the trains being able to head for York and thence Tyneside or Teesside, which would give us a true Northern Hub of the great cities of the North, and with another spur in the Garforth area, a link could be made from HS2 to the Leeds-Selby-Hull line, allowing for a connection to Humberside. 

Looking westwards, the lack of a connection to Liverpool (which will only be served by HS2's "classic compatible" trains) is noticeable. Here, work is needed in Manchester, possibly in the form of a four-platform station underground at Piccadilly - with two platforms for Liverpool and two to the Airport via HS2 (and thus all points south). This station would be part of a Manchester tunnel which would start on the eastern side of the city in the Stalybridge area, thus allowing for higher speed running and a reduction in overground congestion on the existing lines. Liverpool would then be served by a high speed line which would take a similar path to the existing Chat Moss route via Newton-le-Willows, with provision for a curve from HS2, allowing High Speed trains from London access into Merseyside. 

So - much to think about! It seems that Lord Adonis, Labour's last Transport Secretary, will be outlining his own thoughts on rail and economic regeneration in the north in a few days' time - no doubt that will bring plenty of its own ideas to think about. 

It's time to stop being vague and to start setting out plans which will clearly help as many regions as possible, while providing the rail network with new and improved infrastructure to increase capacity and speed up trains. 

Osborne says that we need to think big. I say that we need to cut through the spin and think even bigger. 

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