The Future of High Speed Rail Travel in the UK

In January 2012, UK Transport Secretary, Justine Greening, announced a high speed rail link between the capital London and Birmingham. The distance between the two largest UK cities is about 117 miles as the crow flies but the high speed rail link will be just over 100 miles.

The whole project will be the biggest rail infrastructure development in over a century. It promises to slash the journey time from the current 84 minutes to just 48 minutes,  and all eyes will of course be on the IEP trains running the western and eastern routes to hopefully demonstrate the value of high speed rail technology.

The train speeds promise to touch around 250mph (403km/h). In time the high speed rail link will be extended from Birmingham to the north-west, such as the big cities like Manchester, Liverpool and all the way up to Carlisle, and the north-east, taking in big cities like Sheffield, Leeds and eventually Newcastle upon Tyne. There are further plans to eventually extend the link into Scotland to bring in the capital Edinburgh and Glasgow.

The trains will be 1,350 feet in length and carry around 1,150 on any one journey. At the present time an Inter City 125 train averages speeds of around 100mph but the new high speed bullet trains will reach speeds of around 250mph as they do in other major economic powerhouse countries like France and Japan. The project is known as the HS2 (High Speed 2).

So has high speed train travel already proven its worth in the UK?

I’d say the evidence suggests it may have done just that. The HS1 project has already been completed in late 2007 and now sees high speed Javelin train services on a link between London and Kent.

It means freight and passengers can move very quickly from London to Dover and eventually onto the continent where a connection can be made onto Euro Star rail, taking passengers onto Paris or Brussels once onto mainland Europe. When the HS2 project is completed the same speed of service will be offered to passengers in Birmingham and Northern UK cities as is offered to those travelling from and to London from the southeast at the present time.

Eventually the HS2 rail link extends up to Manchester and another link will go from Birmingham up to Leeds. London to Leeds now will take you around 2 hours 22 minutes, but when HS2 is developed you will do the same journey in just 80 minutes. This will offer businessmen and women a chance to shave a full hour off the current journey time. Manchester to London currently takes 2 hours and 8 minutes and this will be virtually halved to just 75 minutes once the high speed link is developed.

Faster train times will please many businesses, especially big corporations like the BBC, who have just relocated most staff out of London to Manchester to save money on increasing rental site fees in the capital.

The high speed link project has not been without its critics and campaigners, who want more assurances from the Transport Ministry, that wildlife and the environmental damage will be minimized sufficiently. Once it is up and running there will be around 14 trains running every hour. This means as many as 16,000 people every hour will be travelling from the major hubs in central and northern England to the capital.

Campaigners had argued that it would be easier to extend the train lengths on existing rail networks rather than build a whole new network. As many as 18 local authorities across England had joined together to oppose the plan. However, experts who were working for the government said the alternative plans were unworkable and the HS2 link should proceed. The local councils had argued that if the current line on the East Coast network was improvised there would be no need to build a new link.

The Department of Transport insists it has looked closely at all the alternatives, including improvising the existing networks and increasing train lengths. It does say that the huge challenge that lies ahead will not accommodate these proposals and a new HS2 project should therefore go forward despite any arguments to the contrary. The government stresses that with the new high speed bullet train networks there will be more space for the existing rail services to operate. If you were travelling along the same network as London to Birmingham operates, then those passengers who catch a train from say Luton to Milton Keynes for example, would no longer have to share the track with the high speed links between London and Birmingham.

Some of the environmentally sensitive routes along the new proposed HS2 project are expected to be built using natural sound barriers to minimize noise to some of the small villages that could be affected by a high speed rail link going past their homes. In some areas tunnels will be built to maintain the green countryside above. Trees and hedge rows will be replanted on top to maintain the original beauty of the countryside after the tunnel has been excavated. One area of glorious countryside in the Dunstable Downs which will need a tunnel as the area is protected by National Trust reservations. That one tunnel alone could cost around £550 million however. The initial cost of the HS2 project is said to be estimated at £17.5 billion. That is just the cost of the London to Birmingham network. Once the plan extends to Manchester and Leeds the cost could soar up to £35 billion.

Government transport experts expect around £20 billion to be recouped from rail tariffs. It is not clear how long it will take before that £20 billion recouped costs will take however. The whole HS2 project sounds like a monumental task and without doubt it is. Work on the project is expected to create around one million jobs, many of them in the construction sector.

But work is not expected to begin until 2016 and it will be eight years before all the construction work is complete. It will take another two years of testing and preparation until the whole project goes live. Therefore in 2026 the London to Birmingham run will be in operation. The link from London to Manchester will not be in operation until 2032, a fully 20 years from now.

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