söndag 19 juli 2009

A high speed line for Britain?

Support for the construction of a new high speed railway in Britain is growing, though there are going to be years of debate about where it should go and what sort of a line it should be.

Britain is not ideal territory for high speed rail. 80% of the population is packed into about one-third of the land area, south of Leeds and east of Cardiff. Most of the journeys made are quite short. It is also the case that within this core area people are fairly spread-out, which makes it difficult to serve them by public transport, and particularly so with rail transport. Britain’s whole pattern of land use assumes that most people will make most of their journeys by car. Outside this core area, however, there are two important centres of population, the Scottish lowlands belt and Tyne and Wear, and this strengthens the case for high speed rail significantly.

A further difficulty concerns the entire concept of the line. Rail promotes itself on the strength of its ability to provide good journey times between city centres. But most journeys are not between two city centres. Depositing people in a congested city centre when that is not their destination is not a good thing. Passengers using the Channel Tunnel service, for instance, find the time saved by the construction of the new line is squandered in a taxi queue or in the traffic jams in the streets around the terminal.

There are other considerations too. The Channel Tunnel rail link is constructed to the European loading gauge and it is fairly obvious that European gauge trains should be able to use any other high speed lines that are built in Britain. Whilst there is no difficulty in designing trains that will fit the smaller British gauge and also be able to run on European gauge routes, it would probably be impossibly expensive to construct European gauge routes into city centres, though it should not be ruled out. More likely, it seems that a European gauge high speed line running north of London might terminate at a location close to the North Circular Road, with good onwards connections both into Central London and around the suburbs. Cricklewood in North London has been mentioned, and with its existing fast Thameslink connection to the City and southwards, a line that terminated at Cricklewood could well be as useful as a route that ran into the centre.

But is the European gauge the right one in any case? I came across some calculations in the June edition of the Swedish railway magazine Tåg. It was pointed out that four seats 50 cm wide with 8 cm for the armrests in between, 3 cm between seats and bodysides and 46cm for the gangway adds up to an internal width of 3 metres. Adding 20 cm for the thickness of the bodysides gives an external width of 320 cm, which is the standard width of trains in Scandinavia and of the Amtrak fleet in the US but wider than European gauge stock. The same width of vehicle body will also accommodate acceptable 2+3 seating for short journeys.

Looking further ahead, there is the question of whether the line should be able to accommodate double-deck stock. This is achieved in Europe by having low curved ceilings on the upper-deck, which is not satisfactory. Only on the railways of Finland (VR) are there double-deck trains (above) which do not have low ceilings. This is a legacy of the period before 1917 when Finland was a Grand Duchy of the Russian empire and the railways were built to Russian standards.

The logic of this argument seems to be that since the UK high speed railway will run primarily as a self-contained system, there is no need to be downwardly compatible with either other UK lines or main line Europe, provided that standard UK and European stock can operate on it. In any case, the amount of passenger traffic passing from Europe on to a high speed line north of London would be small, as the distance is approaching that at which rail is uncompetitive with air.

In short, therefore, if there are going to be new railways constructed in the UK, they should be built to a larger gauge altogether to permit the operation of double-deck passenger trains of full width (320 cm) with full-height ceilings on both decks. Such trains might be needed on routes such as London to Birmingham and Manchester sooner than anyone imagines. The volume of long distance rail travel could grow dramatically within a few years of the opening of the line. Future generations will not thank us if we repeat the mistakes of the 1830s and leave them with a legacy system with a restricted capacity that forces passengers into cramped uncomfortable trains.

Every long journey starts with a local journey
But whether spending money on a high speed rail network is good value for money is a question that still needs to be asked. It may well be better value to put the investment into making improvements to local transport. Every long distance journey starts and ends with a local journey. The cost of a high speed railway would pay for quite a few urban tram systems. There is a still a need to establish priorities.

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