Not quite on the right track

The Government's White Paper on a high speed rail network is very welcome in this sense: it is a reflexion of the fact that Labour has grasped the need to develop a high speed rail network in Britain. It is hard to believe just how much their policy in this area has changed in the short time since Andrew Adonis became transport secretary. There might be plenty to argue about over the details of the route—particularly with regard to Heathrow—and the eventual extent of the network, but both Labour and the Tories are now in agreement on the principle of a high speed rail network in Britain, and this means that it should go ahead. Gwell hwyr na hwyrach.


However, as I read the stories the day after, it seems that politics has got the better of facts. We have the Tories claiming that "their" plan always included Heathrow, which it didn't, and Peter Hain claiming that the HS2 plan will benefit Wales, which it won't. But what else would we expect at election time? I'd prefer to look at things as objectively as I can ... so find a comfy chair.


There is a wealth of detail about the Government's proposal (and it should be noted that High Speed Two Ltd is a company that was set up by the government, rather than a disinterested body) on this page. So on the basis that a picture paints a thousand words, this map shows the essence of the proposal.


In some ways it is similar to the Bow Group (a Tory think-tank) proposal that Penddu highlighted in this post a few weeks ago (please take time to read it). But the most obvious difference is where the line splits to go to either north west England and Glasgow, or to north east England and Edinburgh. In this respect I think the HS2 proposal is better than that of the Bow Group. As I mentioned at the time, I think the more convoluted route to Leeds was a legacy from the original Tory proposal that they can't quite bring themselves to ditch. Certainly it is important that Leeds is on the network, but branching just north of Birmingham brings the east Midlands and Sheffield directly onto the main route.

However what matters much more is the way that the HS2 proposal treats Heathrow. The crucial difference between the two is that the Bow Group have taken on board the idea of creating a Heathrow Hub. This is an idea first put forward by Arup, and it makes Heathrow a key part of an integrated transport network. The HS2 proposal leaves Heathrow as a spur off the high speed rail network, rather than part of the network itself.



As we can see, the HS2 proposal centres on a Crossrail Interchange (I'll call it the CRI) which serves a number of useful purposes. But in functional terms it is really doing what the Heathrow Hub itself would do ... but in the wrong place.

The crucial difference is that the CRI is in London, so if people use that interchange, they then have to travel into London and then back out of London to get to Heathrow. They reckon the journey time will be 11 minutes, but the fact is that the current journey from Paddington to Heathrow via the Heathrow Express only takes 15 minutes. That's hardly any saving. On top of that Heathrow itself comprises a number of isolated terminals (Central, Terminal 4, Terminal 5 ... and maybe a Terminal 6 if a third runway is built) and no train station can ever serve all of those. Therefore what is needed is a local terminal interchange service which can take in all of those ... and in so doing also include the major rail lines, as well as a bus station and car parking. This is exactly what Arup are proposing.

By including the Great Western Line, it means that people coming to the airport from south Wales, Bristol and Bath, Cheltenham and Gloucester, south west England and Cornwall can get directly to the airport hub, rather than first having to go into London. This is a good thing, and in theory this could be done whether or not the high speed line went through it.

But the advantage of routing the high speed rail link through the Heathrow Hub is that people from the midlands and north of England can also get to Heathrow without first going into London, and can equally use it as an interchange to get to south Wales and south West England without first going into London. It is also very doubtful whether the cost of the Heathrow Hub could be justified unless the high speed line went through it. This is why routing it through the Heathrow Hub is so important to Wales.


The Bow Group see this clearly. As they themselves say, this holistic way of thinking is of the same sort displayed by Michael Heseltine in deciding the route of HS1 – the link from the Channel Tunnel to London. Coming into London from the east rather than the south (as had been proposed by the rail industry) regenerated a whole swathe of what we now call the Thames Gateway ... and the fact that the route was a few kilometres longer didn't matter. It is the same with this proposal by HS2: they are looking at it predominantly from a rail point of view rather than as an integrated transport solution.

Ironically, the HS2 proposal does work around Birmingham, because it makes Birmingham Airport the interchange hub between the new HS line, normal rail services, the airport and the motorway network. All that is necessary is for them to apply the same logic to London's main airport, the normal rails service on the GWR, and the M4.


And I think that HS2 probably realize this. Why else would we see the rather pathetic "loop" to Heathrow on the map above? And what else could explain this statement:

The question is whether there is a case for an additional station at the site of Heathrow itself. HS2 Ltd, after thorough analysis, advise that the business case for such an additional station appears weak, given the estimated cost of at least £2 billion for the additional tunnelling required to serve the site. Furthermore, Heathrow is not a single place; it is an airport with three widely dispersed terminal centres.

However, I am conscious that, as foreshadowed in the Government’s January 2009 decision on adding capacity at Heathrow, there may be a strategic case for a high speed station at Heathrow, particularly in the light of that planned expansion. I have therefore appointed Lord Mawhinney, a former Transport Secretary, to advise on the best way forward, having fully engaged with all interested parties. A complex decision of this nature should not be taken in a knee-jerk fashion, but after a full analysis of the facts and options.

Andrew Adonis - HSR Summary, 11 March 2010

Andrew Adonis at least recognizes where the HS2 scheme is weakest. But I would suggest that if he thinks more clearly, the problem becomes much easier to solve. If the route is taken through Heathrow, as the Bow Group proposes, it will not involve having to build an additional station. If there were a Heathrow Hub, there would be no need for the CRI. It would do everything that the CRI is intended to do, but better. Secondly, Lord Adonis is wrong to suggest that it requires an additional £2bn for tunnelling ... that would only be required if the station were under Heathrow.

The most critical aspect is that of "dispersion", namely that rather than discharge all passengers at the terminal station (Euston) from which they would then have to flood onto the underground to get to various parts of London, an across-the-platform interchange to Crossrail will allow people to go directly to half a dozen points in London. But Crossrail is already set to go through the Heathrow Hub anyway, so it will provide exactly the same "dispersion" that the CRI will provide.

The CRI is intended to be at Old Oak Common in west London, just three miles from Paddington, which is currently the depot for the Eurostar fleet. There is a consensus that the terminal should be at Euston, and this will involve tunnelling between them, and to connect to the HS1 line into St Pancras. The tunnelling is a major cost, but it is common to both schemes. So it is then a question of which route the line follows from there. The HS2 proposal uses the Central Line corridor, the Heathrow Hub proposal uses the Great Western corridor ... both are equally feasible and neither involves major works. The difference in the length of the two routes would be less than a kilometre.


But the biggest difference is that the CRI at Old Oak Common could only ever be a rail solution. There is no way that it could be an integrated transport hub, because there's no way for it interface with road transport. The Heathrow Hub would be right next to the M4/M25 junction, making it very easy to drive and park there, and for a bus station ... as well as the airport, of course. As an integrated solution it wins hands down. The HS2 proposal is a solution that only looks at things from a rail point of view, it lacks breadth of vision.


Finally, everybody knows that no decisions are going to be made on this until after the May election, and the Tories have said they will not accept the proposal without looking again at the route. But I don't want to make this into a party political issue.

My point is simply that building a Heathrow Hub is better in almost every respect than siting it at Old Oak Common. But, in particular, it is better for Wales. Because of this, I urge politicians in Wales, especially Labour politicians, not to look at this as a Labour vs Tory issue. Fight for the solution that is best for Wales (as well as for south west England) ... and if party politics gets in the way, remember that the Heathrow Hub wasn't the Tories' idea, it was Arup's idea.

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Anonymous said...

I have just been plodding through the reports - While I think that the Y-concept is good, the lack of a Heathrow Hub seems a big missed opportunity. The alternative West London interchange is nowhere near as benefical although (still 11 mins from Heathrow, and would shave about 8 minutes of Wales-LHR journey). Maybe a case could be made for building a smaller Heathrow Hub based on GWML alone??


Anonymous said...

Anyone notice this gem on page 7 of the executive summary??

"For rail, some £25 billion will be invested in capacity enhancements in England and Wales over the next seven years"

Has anyone told the Dept of Transport that Transport is a devolved issue....


Anonymous said...


As a long time lurker I would first like to thank you for a consistently excellent blog. Secondly - and forgive me if you have discussed this before - can I make a request for a discussion of north-south links? And also your take on air-links from Wales (a current preoccupation of mine!)

Diolch - and thanks again.

Richard Wyn Jones

MH said...

Diolch Richard. Lurkers always welcome ;-)

The best way of filtering what I've said before on transport in general is to use the "Transport" label on the right. Like this.

On north-south road, the best posts were here and here.

On north-south rail, the best posts were here and here.

As for the air link, I'm much more ambivalent. I can see the need for a very fast way of getting between north and south (and vice versa, of course) so we should do enough to make sure the service continues ... and even develops by taking in another airport such as Llanbedr, which is on the direct route and could strengthen the commercial viability of the service. But I doubt whether it should be so highly subsidized, the few people that need to travel that quickly should pay more to do it.

I think air should be supported, but only be a small part of our efforts compared with improving rail and road links ... simply because investment in rail and road will bring more benefits to more people and businesses.

But I'd welcome your take on the issue.

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