Yesterday’s chaos on the British Railways makes the strongest case yet for HS2

The lesser spotted Virgin train. Image: Getty.

Yesterday lunchtime, a cable broke in Wembley, north west London. That caused the signals to fail on the West Coast Main Line (WCML), and meant that, for two hours yesterday afternoon, trains could not travel between Euston and Watford Junction.

The resulting delays and cancellations didn’t just affect passengers, but also meant that dozens of trains and train crews weren’t were they were supposed to be at the time they were supposed to be there. That in turn meant more delays, cancellations, horrific overcrowding, the abandonment of all seat reservations, the rapid collapse of civilisation, and the passengers on the 15:45 to Woverhampton deciding to re-enact the last few chapters of Lord of the Flies. And all because a cable broke. It wasn’t a good day.

To make matters worse, yesterday was also the final day of the Labour party conference in Liverpool, two hours from London along this very line. That meant that large chunks of Britain’s government and media classes were trying to make their way home on the affected route.

And so, the problems got a lot more attention than they probably would otherwise. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn himself tweeted, "Couldn’t make this up. We need public ownership of our railways", because it was a great excuse to remind everyone of a popular policy pledge, and you would, wouldn’t you?


Actually, though, this argument didn’t really stack up: the cause of the problems lay in infrastructure, not operations, and infrastructure already is in the hands of the publicly-owned Network Rail. If the railways had been completely nationalised last week, that cable still would have broken, and the chaos would have unfolded exactly the same way.

So: sorry, Jeremy, but yesterday’s mess does not actually make the case for nationalisation after all.

It does, however, make a strong case for another major rail policy of our era: High Speed 2.

One of the reasons a cable snapping in Wembley could cause as much chaos as it did is because the West Coast Main Line is one of the busiest railway routes in Europe. It links London with both candidates for the title “Britain’s second city”, Birmingham and Manchester; as well as two of the other big metropolitan areas, Glasgow and Liverpool; and other significant cities including Milton Keynes, Coventry, Wolverhampton, Preston and Stoke-on-Trent. That’s without even getting into the fact its branches double as major commuter routes in several of those places, and it’s also a major freight route.

So: it’s a pretty important route. If you were designing a railway network for resilience, you probably wouldn’t use the same line to link a country’s capital to its second, third, fifth and tenth largest metropolitan areas. It’s asking for trouble.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

HS2 of course will also serve a number of these same cities, as well as several more (Nottingham, Sheffield, Leeds). But there’s a key difference: if HS2 existed, there’d be more than one major rail route connecting London and most of the major British cities. If that cable broke at Wembley, there’d still be a working railway line between Manchester and London. Hell, that’d be true if a cable broke on HS2, too: it’d make it a hell of a lot harder for one minor infrastructure failure to paralyse the country.

Most of the attempt to sell HS2 to a sceptical public have focused on speed, on the grounds that high-speed trains are sexy. But this hasn’t really taken, because "20 minutes off the journey time from London to Birmingham!" really doesn’t sound like that big a deal. A more convincing argument is the one about capacity: it says that the WCML is pretty much full, and so these routes need both more train paths and more seats.

For me, though, the most compelling case is the one about resilience: the argument that says that things will inevitably break, so we should have back-up systems. That is why we should build HS2: to make us less dependent on a single, ageing rail-route. A cable snapping in north London should not be enough to paralyse a country.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

 
 
 
 

Here’s a fantasy metro network for Birmingham & the West Midlands

Birmingham New Street. Image: Getty.

Another reader writes in with their fantasy transport plans for their city. This week, we’re off to Birmingham…

I’ve read with interest CityMetric’s previous discussion on Birmingham’s poor commuter service frequency and desire for a “Crossrail” (here and here). So I thought I’d get involved, but from a different angle.

There’s a whole range of local issues to throw into the mix before getting the fantasy metro crayons out. Birmingham New Street is shooting up the passenger usage rankings, but sadly its performance isn’t, with nearly half of trains in the evening rush hour between 5pm and 8pm five minutes or more late or even cancelled. This makes connecting through New Street a hit and, mainly, miss affair, which anyone who values their commuting sanity will avoid completely. No wonder us Brummies drive everywhere.


There are seven local station reopening on the cards, which have been given a helping hand by a pro-rail mayor. But while these are super on their own, each one alone struggles to get enough traffic to justify a frequent service (which is key for commuters); or the wider investment needed elsewhere to free up more timetable slots, which is why the forgotten cousin of freight gets pushed even deeper into the night, in turn giving engineering work nowhere to go at all.

Suburban rail is the less exciting cousin of cross country rail. But at present there’s nobody to “mind the gap” between regional cross-country focussed rail strategy , and the bus/tram orientated planning of individual councils. (Incidentally, the next Midland Metro extension, from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, is expected to cost £450m for just 11km of tram. Ouch.)

So given all that, I decided to go down a less glamorous angle than a Birmingham Crossrail, and design a Birmingham  & Black Country Overground. Like the London Overground, I’ve tried to join up what we’ve already got into a more coherent service and make a distinct “line” out of it.

Click to expand. 

With our industrial heritage there are a selection of old alignments to run down, which would bring a suburban service right into the heart of the communities it needs to serve, rather than creating a whole string of “park & rides” on the periphery. Throw in another 24km of completely new line to close up the gaps and I’ve run a complete ring of railway all the way around Birmingham and the Black Country, joining up with HS2 & the airport for good measure – without too much carnage by the way of development to work around/through/over/under.

Click to expand. 

While going around with a big circle on the outside, I found a smaller circle inside the city where the tracks already exist, and by re-creating a number of old stations I managed to get within 800m of two major hospitals. The route also runs right under the Birmingham Arena (formerly the NIA), fixing the stunning late 1980s planning error of building a 16,000 capacity arena right in the heart of a city centre, over the railway line, but without a station. (It does have two big car parks instead: lovely at 10pm when a concert kicks out, gridlocks really nicely.)

From that redraw the local network map and ended up with...

Click to expand. 

Compare this with the current broadly hub-and-spoke network, and suddenly you’ve opened up a lot more local journey possibilities which you’d have otherwise have had to go through New Street to make. (Or, in reality, drive.) Yours for a mere snip at £3bn.

If you want to read more, there are detailed plans and discussion here (signup required).