Independent rail campaigner Michael Bell on his alternative plan for HS2.
High Speed 2 Ltd says it is having difficulty designing a station and route for HS2 through London. That may be because it is still uncertain whether the project is going ahead at all, but there are planning difficulties too.
The proposed HS2 route starts from the west side of Euston, and stops after only three miles at Old Oak Common, where it meets the Elizabeth line from Heathrow. That’s because, when the route was designed, it was seen as important for the “National Airport” to make connection with HS2, the country’s main railway.
This is muddled thinking. A passenger from Heathrow need only stay on the Elizabeth Line for eight minutes and then change, to get to Euston in a total of under 20 minutes. Not a big deal to those who have flown the Atlantic, but a considerable deal to those who have 12 minutes added to their everyday north-south journey.
That delay consists not only of stopping time at Old Oak Common but also of the 20 extra miles run westward before HS2 can turn north. What’s more, building that route will be very expensive and very disruptive. Muck, noise and heavy lorries for 10 years.
Old Oak Common has caught the eye of developers, and it may well be that both public good and profit can be made by redeveloping Old Oak Common – but that does not depend on HS2. It is hard to imagine that many will come from the north just to visit Old Oak Common.
I suggest instead the Thorn Shaped Route. It gets its name from the letter þ, called “thorn”, used in Old English to write the sounds which we now write “th”. It would run from Glasgow to Edinburgh, Newcastle, Middlesbrough, York to Leeds, where it would split. The eastern half of the loop would then run via Sheﬃeld, Nottingham, and Leicester; the western half via loop Manchester, Stoke, Birmingham and Coventry; before the two recombine at Rugby and continue London. In such a way, it would link up all the centres of this country east of the Severn.
Ringby would, a sort of Midlands Engine/Northern Powerhouse+.
Within London, the route would start from the east side of Euston, and run in tunnel to West Hampstead, from where it would join a viaduct over the M1. The length of overhead to be covered is 10 kms, Let us say the spans are 100 M Considering the amounts of earth to be moved and concrete to be poured, this must be much cheaper than HS2’s route – and avoiding Old Oak Common would mean the trains can get up to full speed straight away.
As to its appearance, the new viaduct would look like the Byker viaduct of the Tyne-Wear Metro: a very ordinary bit of urban architecture, of the sort we could all drive along or live near. Noise from the motorway will overwhelm the noise of trains on the route, while passengers will get a good view of London.
The Byker viaduct, Newcastle. Image: author provided.
The route would then serve a road/rail interchange at “Waterdale”, the intersection of the M1 and M25. This will be far more useful than Old Oak Common: a rail route runs from Rickmansworth in the west to very near Waterdale, and could be extended east to St Albans and Hatﬁeld.
From there, the route runs north as the 5th and 6th track of the West Coast Main Line. Through Linslade, in southern Bedfordshire, the WCML takes a curve which is too sharp for these speeds – so my route instead takes a straight line through a cutting on the west side of Linslade, taking with it the 4th and 3rd tracks of the WCML. This removes the only speed restriction between London and Milton Keynes, enabling that town to be served by services like the Javelin services which serves Kent.
If the route were to be run at up to 18 trains per hour, as HS2 propose for its own trunk route, there can be no station at Milton Keynes. That’s because at that intensity you cannot stop selected trains and not others: all trains must stop, and Milton Keynes cannot warrant so many trains.
So the route instead follows the original Birmingham-London route though Wolverton, which, amazingly, is still there. The route forks at Rugby, one arm running north to Leicester and beyond, the other heading west to Coventry and beyond.
You can read more about the Thorn Shaped Route on its website.