We have been wrestling with WCML capacity for more than 30 years, despite the 'communications revolution' which has also occurred in that period. Photo: M Addison
Later this month, UK Secretary of State for Transport Justine Greening is expected to announce whether the government intends to proceed with the first phase of High Speed Two between London and the West Midlands. A cabal of local campaign groups and predominantly right-wing think tanks have joined forces to oppose the project, and they will doubtless be hoping that Ms Greening tells Parliament that she is ditching the project in favour of upgrading existing north-south rail axes.
Perhaps she might say something like this:
‘I commend to the House our strategy to turn our backs on international best practice for inter-city rail routes, proven by the 13 000 km operating successfully around the globe. I propose instead to launch a further incremental upgrade of the West Coast Main Line between London and Glasgow, even though I know we’ve tried this approach three times before and at no point have the rail capacity objectives originally set out been fully accomplished.’
Opposition to HS2 has been led by the High Speed Action Alliance (HS2AA), aided by former Deputy Rail Franchising Director Chris Stokes, and AGHAST (Action Groups Against High Speed Rail), chaired by the erudite entrepreneur Jerry Marshall. Together they believe that the capacity crunch on the inter-city rail network can be overcome easily by what they term ‘incremental upgrades’, starting with longer trains on the West Coast route, the main artery that would be relieved by HS2.
As I’ve already alluded to, this is not a new strategy – transport planners have insisted since the heady days of the Advanced Passenger Train in the 1970s that the WCML, largely built in the first half of the 19th century, can be brought to heel to provide modern quasi-high speed rail services on a par with the TGV, AVE or Shinkansen. Three principal efforts were launched in the intervening four decades, the most complete, ambitious and arguably misguided, being the West Coast Route Modernisation of 1998-2009.
This ‘saga of greed, incompetence and delusion’ was described in forensic detail by The Guardian in 2004, but back then it was still believed that, once complete, the railway could be left for many decades to come, market demand being met comfortably by a mix of high-frequency local, regional and express trains. That new dawn quickly faded. Fast forward five years and it was already clear that the £9bn price tag had delivered a fast but fragile service on core city-to-city routes, but a vastly worse service for most intermediate markets, as I pointed out earlier this year.
The examples of service deterioration are legion, and can broadly be split into two categories: unreliable inter-city services caused by overuse of old infrastructure, and the loss of through journey opportunities caused by prioritisation of fast trains to and from London. It must be stressed that these side-effects are visible today, this is not some nihilistic portrayal of the future:
- Virgin Trains, the main long-distance operator on the WCML, is at present the least punctual rail operator in the UK, and has struggled to escape the bottom three places in the league table since the ‘upgrading’ was completed;
- Intermediate WCML stations like Watford and Nuneaton used to enjoy regular direct trains to northwest destinations like Liverpool and Manchester, now they have none; there is a mere 13 h gap in direct trains between Milton Keynes and Wolverhampton;
- Regional routes connecting with the WCML have in many cases been radically altered to fit in more fast London trains. The worst examples include the axing of some morning commuter trains from Northwich and Knutsford to Manchester, and the loss of regular-pattern frequency between Birmingham and Coventry;
- Potential new direct services from London to the regions are either denied outright (Blackpool, Huddersfield, Rochdale), or forced to take a circuitous route that fails to attract sufficient passengers (Shrewsbury, Wrexham);
- Some local stations have faced closure, depriving smaller communities of valuable low-carbon transport (Barlaston and Wedgwood on Staffordshire both lost their rail services in 2003 on the grounds that there was no capacity left to stop trains there. Nearby Stone lost its trains for a mere five years).
So, with benefits like those, why wouldn’t we try it all over again?