New rail line could halve London-Scotland journey times

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The Independent Online

Journey times from London to Scotland would be halved by building a £34bn high-speed rail line, using a route preferred by Network Rail (NR).

A detailed study by the body responsible for the UK’s rail infrastructure found that passengers would be able to reach Glasgow from the capital in just two hours 16 minutes, down from the current 4.5-hour journey time.

However, the report revealed that the project would generate a net loss of more than £10bn over 60 years, making it likely that the full costs of the project would have to be met by the taxpayer, since funding from private companies would be hard to attract.

Under the proposals, the new trains would run from London and travel to Birmingham, Manchester, Warrington, Liverpool, Preston, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Passengers could reach Birmingham in just 45 minutes.

The report outlined what would be one of the biggest infrastructure projects ever carried out in Britain, with the construction of eight major city centre stations, 1,500 miles of new track, 34 miles of tunnels and the addition of 170 bridges. The new network would see as many as 16 trains an hour (carrying more than 9,000 passengers) head into London. Network Rail said it would also provide a £31.4bn boost to the economy by cutting journey times.

Iain Coucher, chief executive of Network Rail, said that a decision needed to be made urgently on increasing rail capacity as some lines were almost full. “By 2020 we will be turning away passengers,” he said. “We need to start the planning now to meet future demand and the solution is a new high-speed railway to the Midlands, North-west England and Scotland. The line has a sound business case that will pay for itself.”

Network Rail’s analysis raised doubts over the Government’s determination to link any new high-speed line to Heathrow. The addition of a high-speed hub at the airport was one of the key concessions secured by the Climate Change Secretary, Ed Miliband, when the Government approved the addition of a third runway. Network Rail concluded that extending the line itself to the airport would “not make good financial sense”. Adding a spur to link Heathrow to the high-speed line would cost an extra £2.6bn. Network Rail also ruled out links to Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle as not cost effective.

The study will now be handed to HS2, a company set up by the Government to come up with official plans for a high-speed line to the Midlands. It will report by the end of the year.

The Transport Secretary, Lord Adonis, said that Network Rail had made “a powerful case for high-speed rail in Britain”. He added: “The potential benefits are considerable. This is why virtually every other developed country in the world is now building high-speed rail lines.”

All three main political parties are in favour of a new high-speed rail line, but huge problems remain before firm plans can be laid out. Stephen Glaister, Professor of Transport and Infrastructure at Imperial College, London, said that any line to Scotland would “inevitably cause enormous apposition” from local residents and conservation groups.

He also warned that private funding would not be forthcoming under Network Rail’s plan. “This is a loss-making venture,” he said. “That is not to say it is not worth doing, but it would mean the private sector would provide none of the funding as it is not commercially viable.” He also said that any plans to connect the line directly to Heathrow should be dropped as the extra stop would seriously affect the lower journey times.

Working out an exact route and gaining planning permission would take at least five years. Constructing the network would take much longer. The trains would be unlikely to take passengers before 2030, Network Rail said.

The dire state of Britain’s public finances has also raised concerns that other important projects would be squeezed if the plans for a major high-speed rail network go ahead. Michael Roberts, chief executive of the Association of Train Operating Companies, said: “What is vital is that investment in any new lines allows much needed investment to proceed in other projects, such as the recently-announced electrification of major parts of the network.”