High Speed 2: Alternative Proposal

Now the HS2 line has been in front of the Transport Select Committee we can judge a little better the appetite for such a project. I personally think the current route doesn’t justify the massive expenditure and upheaval, but equally I think a substantial h/s network is highly desirable as well as providing massively increased nighttime freight capacity.


So, where to begin? At Euston, with the removal of the grim, faceless black towers which (appallingly) mark the public face of the station. In their place, a new facade worthy of the gateway to the north should be built, receiving trains on three levels – two at/just below the surface for conventional trains running on existing lines (perhaps divided between suburban and long-distance), and one far below the surface (as with Crossrail), a new terminus for the high speed line. Eight high-speed platforms should be enough to provide capacity for sixteen to twenty four trains per hour, though the limiting factor here is tunnel section described in the next paragraph. The lines for the high speed trains would need to start west of the Northern Line tunnels I think, running parallel until somewhere around Chalk Farm at which point they could cross (underground, at different depths).

There would, for capacity to be anything like sensible, need to be four lines running in tunnels for around six miles, from Euston to a suitable point between Finchley and Mill Hill. This is probably the biggest civil engineering challenge but has some intrinsic benefits: it points the line north as it runs out of London, avoiding the big western (indeed southwestern) detour currently needed to get into Euston; it pushes the line into land much cheaper for development (once beyond the satellite towns at least); and it causes the least disruption on the surface in London (which both reduces inconvenience and, perhaps more importantly, other costs).

Emerging on the far side of Hampstead Heath near (or indeed at) Finchley Golf Club – sorry chaps! – the line would continue north between Mill Hill and Totteridge, then onward bisecting Borehamwood to the west and Barnet to the east. It would skirt St. Albans to its east, then proceed north, passing Harpenden and Luton (again, to the east). I think these towns are adequately served and the marginal benefit of high speed to those journey times is minimal, hence bypassing is sensible. The first stop, under my scheme would be Bedford. I haven’t seen a single plan which suggests this, and it may strike you as daft, but I think there are plenty of benefits.

You may think there is a glaring inefficiency, as to get to Birmingham you are taking a bit of a detour – 115 miles in an L-shape instead of 100 in a shallow S-shape. But, as others (including Evan Davis) have pointed out, the London to Birmingham section is the least important in terms of development (though not in terms of capacity). Hence HS3 (see below) could be developed concurrently. It only takes an hour and a half now, and even via Bedford would only be around 57 minutes instead of the government-proposed 49 minutes. This still makes enough of a difference to make it an attractive option for some of the London-Birmingham traffic. Yet the main benefits of taking a more easterly route initially are as follows:

1) Shorter times further north (i.e. on the non-Birmingham spur)

2) The bulk of a high-capacity Birmingham to Felixstowe trunk freight line would be made as part of this scheme (only Bedford to Ipswich/ports would need to be upgraded)

3) Bedford is on the route of the proposed Didcot-Oxford-Bicester-Milton Keynes-Bedford-Cambridge line, a reopening project not only linking those towns but also linking many of the main routes which run into London

4) Bedford is less crowded than other candidates – Milton Keynes and Luton – for intermediate stops in this vicinity

So, if you’ll bear with me…

At Bedford the line would divide (hence Bedford would be the location of a large interchange station for HS2, Bedford to Ipswich/Ports, and Didcot to Cambridge). The main line would continue northwest to Leicester (48m to London) and then on to a new station (and possible location for a new sustainable urban development) in Erewash Dale (60m to London) between Derby and Nottingham where it would link with a new fast light rail system serving those cities and their suburbs. While HS2b (see below) pares off to the northwest, the main line continues north to Sheffield (75m, currently 130m) and Leeds (90m, currently 135m). Leeds would act as a third hub (along with Erewash Dale and Bedford) as the final split happens here.

The main HS2 would continue north from Leeds, terminating at Newcastle. The latter city could be reached in 125m from London, a big improvement on the current 170m, while intermediate times are improved further still: Leeds to Newcastle in around 35m instead of a pedestrian 90m at the moment; Leicester or Derby to Newcastle in 77m (170m currently) and 65m (135m currently) respectively. Edinburgh to London via Newcastle would be cut from four and half hours to three and a half. These intermediate benefits are, I feel, the great positive associated with a trunk and branch scheme as opposed to a Y-shaped point-to-point system. In fact, while I describe it as trunk (HS2 London to Newcastle) and branch (a to Birmingham, b to Liverpool, and c to Oxenholme) what I think the integrated idea proposes (see bottom of post) is a double Y shape, one beginning in London with Newcastle and Scotland as the tips of the Y, but acting as a trunk for branches to Birmingham and Liverpool, while another Y begins in Birmingham running up to the Northwest but also on to Scotland.

HS2 & branches a, b and c

(click picture to enlarge) – also, maps clearly not to scale!


At Bedford, HS2a would head off west-northwest, calling at Northampton and Coventry before arriving at Birmingham. Times from London would be (approximately) Bedford 25m, Northampton 35m, Coventry 48m and Birmingham 57m. A separate (though integrated) line (HS3) could continue from Birmingham to Manchester, Liverpool, Preston and further north, though I don’t believe this should be the route by which pressure is taken off the West Coast Main Line, i.e. this should be seen as a separate Birmingham-Northwest line.


Following Erewash Dale, the line would divide again. HS2b would shear off south of the Peak District, bearing round east of Leek, and heading north parallel to the Stockport-Macclesfield line perhaps three miles to the east. It could enter Manchester through the southeast (again, some golf courses are going to have to take a hike) between Stockport and Bredbury and through Reddish. There is a huge car auction site where HS2b could meet the West Coast Main Line, briefly, for the last couple of miles before the station. And the replacement of a car auction lot with a high speed rail line has a nice common sense ring to it, doesn’t it?

There is a fine candidate for a high-speed station extension beside Manchester Piccadilly at Mayfield – only two platforms would be needed for through to trains to Liverpool (probably two an hour) and these tracks could wend their way back over that strange car park and rusty shed to meet an improved and widened Piccadilly-Liverpool line. That would leave room for around four terminal platforms at Manchester and alleviate some of the pressure on Piccadilly itself. Arguably a new terminus at Liverpool would be better than attempting to wedge the bulk of high speed trains and lines into the existing (largely culverted) infrastructure. This would presumably be most welcome from a local development and jobs perspective, but would need careful thought in terms of linkage with local transport.

Because of the large-ish diversion around the Peak District, this branch of the high speed line sees the least time shaved off current journeys, but the improvements are significant: 90m from London to Manchester (rather than 130m now) and 105m from London to Liverpool (as opposed to 130m now). The eye-watering benefits are in the intermediate sections though – Liverpool to Manchester in under 20m (currently around 45m), Liverpool to Nottingham or Derby in around 50m (currently around three hours!), Manchester to Leicester in 45m (currently over two hours!) etc.


HS2c would be an entirely new line, and probably quite controversial, arcing off to the northwest across the moors following, more or less, the A65 to Oxenholme (115m to London, currently 160m)where it would join the West Coast Main Line, feeding in traffic from Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Glasgow and Edinburgh would both therefore benefit from a 45m reduction in time to London (and much more to points in between where services are currently limited), helping along the transition away from domestic flight as the go-to mode of transport. This isn’t envisaged as the end of the line though; by improving the Oxenholme to Glasgow/Edinburgh section of the line (HS4) these times would be further reduced, maybe quite dramatically. Edinburgh would benefit separately from the Newcastle h/s link too.


An HS3 would run from Birmingham to Oxenholme, allowing faster link ups with Manchester, Liverpool and Scotland from the Midlands. As many have pointed out, it makes sense to begin building the regional sections of the project at the same time. There is no reason why the Birmingham-Manchester/Liverpool section couldn’t be built at the same time as London-Leeds-Newcastle, their linking done as and when the sections are ready.

HS3, Birmingham to the North


Just a pictorial idea at this stage… the ‘central airport’ idea was mooted in my last post.

Possible HS4

However, all of this needs to be tied in to other projects. The Thames airport-freight-highspeed hub discussed in the last post is one such possibility. (Crucially, this h/s network should allow direct through services to Europe from all major termini). Another would be a continuation of the Liverpool-Manchester highspeed line under the Pennines to Leeds and on to Hull, providing vastly improved passenger linkage by day and new freight benefits at night (and taking pressure off the M62). The Didcot-Ipswich/Ports link-line is important too, both for freight and passengers. Most importantly of all, some might feel, HS4 – the Oxenholme to Edinburgh via Glasgow (or Glasgow and Edinburgh via a parkway somewhere halfway) section mentioned above – which makes this a genuinely national project. Joined-up planning on a ten or fifteen year scale is critical to getting us out of the many transport jams we are finding ourselves in – and, as a final aside, the twenty to twenty five year projected timeline for this scheme is ridiculous. While we shouldn’t cut corners – the Chinese rush to highspeed has shown the danger in that – there’s no good reason why we shouldn’t aim to have this network running within a decade. In fact, with our current network creaking and road traffic needing to be curbed, it is essential.

The whole caboodle

Published in: on November 8, 2011 at 11:41 am  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Ooh, someone’s drawn up an idea for Mayfield as an HS2 terminal in Manchester:
    Piccadilly Mayfield HS2 P15 P16

  2. Grand plans indeed – I mean that in both the ‘scale’ sense and the ‘nice’ sense (i.e. the Yorkshire sense – “those plans are right grand”). I’m interested in your Leeds to Oxenholme, which I presume would have to skirt the perimeter of the Yorkshire Dales NP just as the Birmingham to Manchester branch would skirt the Peak District NP: failing that it would have to go over Forest of Bowland land which is mostly owned by the Crown I believe – what do you think her Maj will say (?!)
    By the way, what is the funding situation here? Might the HS system be an opportunity to introduce a properly nationalised network (initially running parallel to the private national rail network, but in its superiority soon forcing the renationalisation of that) or is this too much wishful thinking?

    • Well, yes, as with the Thames Hub project I’d see this as a private sector money-making idea which should be hijacked for the commons – the sort of huge nationalised project necessary to train and employ a good number of people while we work out whether the current economic model is just running on fumes. The other option is to create a two tier system but that would only be acceptable if conventional rail prices dropped considerably (particularly on the East Coast Main Line where bargains seem few and far between!).

      Can’t see the crown buckling under the wheels of a high speed train (well I can, in a Morrissey ‘bull between arches’ kind of a way…)

  3. Awesome idea. I love how all the HS routes crisscross Britain

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