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High Speed 2: Terminal velocity

The new government is yet to be decided, but one thing looks assured as far as infrastructure is concerned − come the new parliament, it should be full steam ahead for high speed rail. Alexandra Wynne unravels the challenges posed by the proposals on the table in NCE’s first High Speed Quarterly update.

High Speed 2 (HS2) looks set to give the UK’s modified Victorian rail network more than a simple facelift. With its recently released proposal for a second high speed line, the government is aiming to engineer a new network to create super fast enhanced capacity for rail travel.

New lines are overwhelmingly favoured ahead of upgrades, with the government still smarting from the upgrade of the West Coast Main Line (WCML). That project was subject to massive cost escalation − it came in at an eye-watering £9bn instead of the original £2bn − and still only bought a few years of comfortable capacity before the route starts to begin bursting at the seams again.

By contrast, the HS2 company − set up in January 2009 by the government − has come up with a proposal for a brand new, 539km long high speed rail line serving London, the West Midlands, Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds. It is now being pursued through a government Command Paper and would come in at a cost of £30bn.

Construction is set to follow on from the completion of Crossrail in 2017 and take until 2026. Critically, the first 206km long stage from London to the West Midlands costs between £15.8bn and £17.4bn and would treble current capacity.

Revealing the scheme to the House of Lords last month, transport secretary Lord Adonis called it “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to overcome the acute connectivity limitations of the Victorian rail networ with its three separate and poorly inter-connected main lines from London to the North.”

“Since the new platforms would be two storeys below ground. The new Euston would allow the introduction of public streets”

Sir Terry Farrell

The big ticket items of the scheme will be the most challenging engineering feats − the stations and the tunnelling work. Of the £6.8bn basic construction costs, tunnels are likely to account for £1.5bn and the four new stations needed are expected to come in at £1.6bn.

These are a central London hub at Euston, an interchange station for primary connections to Crossrail and Heathrow airport at Old Oak Common west of Paddington, a second interchange close to Birmingham International Airport and a new station at the site of the old Curzon Street station in Birmingham city centre.

Adonis is without doubt hoping the grand plans for the city centre stations will quieten sceptics by enabling local, national and international networks to be better integrated.

But although promoter HS2 admitted that regeneration had “not been a deciding factor in our station choice” it also noted the potential for regeneration opportunities, on which Adonis has since been keener to place emphasis.

It is a sentiment that echoes that of leading architect and designer of high speed rail super-stations Sir Terry Farrell, who has contributed a chapter to the command paper on the potential benefits of hub stations.

Farrell told NCE in November that the UK’s new high speed rail stations had the potential to “transform all their destinations” adding that “the greatest value of high speed rail could be its eff ect on cities and towns and their economies” (NCE 12 November 2009).

High Speed 2

An artist’s impression of High Speed 2

“The potential of stations to transform cities is critically important,” he elaborates in the paper. “Stations have become pre-eminent in their role as place-makers. This is all a far cry from the origins of rail in the 19th century, where it was initially associated with goods transportation.”

HS2 started out with 27 different London sites, sifting them down to 10 at stage two of the route’s development, then four at stage three, before finally settling on one preferred option − a massively expanded station at Euston with the platforms all at the same level.

It offered the government two other alternatives − a double deck station at Euston or a Kings Cross cut and cover station.

The double-deck Euston proposal would require “extensive” civils works, however, which would be “very diffi cult” to carry out in a safe manner above a railway line, its report said. In addition, construction would cause significantly more disruption and last a year longer than the preferred option.

The roof height would also reach 44m above ground level, which would leave little room for development above as it would block the protected view of St Pauls cathedral from Primrose Hill in north London.

Meanwhile, the King’s Cross site would not easily accommodate a station box as it is flanked by Thameslink tunnels, a multitude of railway lines such as High Speed 1 (HS1) and the North London Line, as well as having the Regents Canal at its southern edge and the Camden sewer crossing the site.

The HS2 timeline

Autumn 2010 Formal public consultation
2011 Ministers decide whether to proceed and proposed route for London to Birmingham
2011 - 2013 Further detailed design
2013 - 2014 Further public consultation and Hybrid Bill laid in Parliament
2017 Possible start of construction
2026 Earliest opening of new rail line


In addition, the area is already in the midst of a heritage-led regeneration masterplan and a new HS2 station would affect 90% of it.

HS2 ruled out the seemingly obvious choice of trying to create a super-station around the existing HS1 St Pancras station at stage two. It had considered two options.

First was a 10-platform station built immediately above the extended HS1 platform zone, which it took a negative view of because of the sheer scale of the construction challenge.

This would have included building new foundations beneath the existing deck and would have created massive disruption and necessitate complete closure of the station.

The second option ruled out here was to build a 10 platform terminal station to the north west and at the same level as St Pancras International in the adjacent Somers Town residential area but again it was rejected, this time because of significant disruption to the local community including the loss of St Pancras Hospital, and a number of listed buildings and monuments.

The HS2 team opted for Euston, because while it still means the demolition of properties from the front and west of the station, the land issue was less problematic and construction can be phased to minimise disruption.

“In Birmingham, the new high speed station would improve interchange between the three stations.”

Sir Terry Farrell

During NCE’s November conversation with Farrell he revealed that Euston was his first choice for a London hub for its large area of land and potential for improvement. “You have to think ‘what does a railway station attract to it as part of its DNA’.

“It releases value but if you haven’t got the land around it to release the value then that’s not the right place,” he said.

In the paper, he adds that the Euston development could make it one of the “greatest stations in the world” and that alongside the ongoing regeneration to nearby King’s Cross would create the potential for it to become the for development at least equal in scale to Canary Wharf.

He offered up Kowloon station as evidence. “In Hong Kong our Kowloon station development has attracted high value development more than twice the size of Canary Wharf,” he said.

“The focus of this new place is a grand station square set within Kowloon. Our Beijing South station was deliberately planned from the outset as a whole new centre within the capital city.”

Sitting so close to the very celebrated St Pancras high speed station, Euston will have its work cut out to compete as an outright engineering success. The idea is to extend the existing station to the south and west.

By extending it westwards, the new hub could accommodate 10 HS2 platforms with 14 classic platforms running beside them to the east - down from the 18 that currently serve the station.

How Euston could look

How Euston could look

HS2 has projected that the new HS2 platforms, along with the replacement of longer distance services from the current WCML, would mean slightly fewer platforms would be needed for the classic services.

Platforms would be built about 2m below current track level to create necessary clearance under Hampstead Road Bridge just to the north of the station. Meanwhile, the concourse would be extended over the platforms at street level for two thirds of their length, allowing for potential to create commercial and retail developments above.

“Since the new platforms would be almost two storeys below ground level, the new Euston would allow the introduction of new streets and public squares which improve east-west connections, notoriously difficult at present given the current station design,” Farrell says.

Extending the station footprint southwards to meet, but not affect, Euston Gardens, will also help accommodate the new 400m long high speed trains.

The new London station is estimated to cost £1bn. However, Adonis has since instructed HS2 chief engineer Andrew Mc- Naughton to investigate alternative connections between HS2 and HS1 at St Pancras, including a through route to connect the new UK high speed cities with the continent.

With the announcement from Adonis, Birmingham is set to become one of the largest beneficiaries of the scheme. From its interchange to that of the capital the journey time will be just 31 minutes.

“Stations have become pre-eminent in their role as placemakers.”

Sir Terry Farrell

HS2 follows a similar logic in the West Midlands as in the capital, selecting a central Birmingham station in addition to a suburban interchange. The central station would cost £235M.

The central station will simply be a terminus. HS2 ruled out a through station because it would require three open boxes of considerable size for the new station and the associated deceleration lanes and while the decision was driven by the feasibility of construction, the townscape and land take were deemed unacceptable.

HS2 then went on to consider 17 options, bringing it down to 11 at stage two, five at stage three and eventually down to one preferred option at Fazeley/ Curzon Street.

New Street station was taken out of the equation because the lack of space and extensive tunnelling required, which brought it in at a cost of around £1.6bn to build while maintaining current capacity for classic line services.

The Fazeley/Curzon Street site lies immediately to the north of the existing WCML into New Street station and is in the main derelict. The proposed new station would be an elevated structure with a concourse at the western end in the city centre, adjacent to the existing Moor Street station, which the concourse could be connected to.

The station, including platforms and approach tracks, would be built on a 450m long viaduct that can be built with minimal disruption to the existing rail network.

Kings Cross outside

The regenerated exterior of King’s Cross Underground station

The single viable alternative at Warwick Wharf would cost more at £260M due to a more challenging topography − the site falls away immediately to the south east of station, meaning it would need to be elevated for quite some way above current street level.

The Curzon Street site would also allow the resurrection of the Grade I listed former station building, which is currently unoccupied.

“In Birmingham, the new high speed station would be similarly revolutionary in its impact,” says Farrell. “The new hub would improve interchange between the three stations (including Birmingham New Street and Moor St stations)… Rail could reinforce Birmingham’s commitment to an improved pedestrian experience in the city centre, a far cry from the city’s vision of itself as the motor car city of the 1960s and 1970s.”

As for the interchanges, Adonis had quite a way to go to come up with a great option for London after outright rejecting the Arup-led Heathrow Hub option, designed prior to HS2’s set up and preferred by the Tories, who see this as a firm argument for fighting a third runway at the airport.

Instead, the government has favoured a London interchange at Old Oak Common, although in a politically sensitive move, Adonis has since instructed former transport secretary Lord Mawhinney to revisit how Heathrow might best be served. He has already rejected one option that would add £2bn to the project costs.

Parsons Brinckeroff technical director for strategic consulting Martin Heffer identified the potential of the site 18 months ago, predating the involvement of HS2. “We decided to look at the very long term and transport issues, particularly surrounding pressure points and the common problems in London such as the congestion of the Victoria Line at Euston,” he says.

A route to success?

The scheme is now preparing to go out to formal public consultation in the autumn and while, if it were to remain in power, the government expects to give the go ahead next year.

However, Farrell has warned that the UK must prepare itself to overcome obstacles that often halt such projects.

“The big issue for the Brits is will, political will and local will. Everybody has to consult everybody else a dozen times,” he says, citing an example from the Crossrail mega-project, which had been in the planning for over 20 years.

If all goes well, the government will aim to form a single Hybrid Bill for the scheme by 2014, which could keep it on track to ensure the first HS2 trains leave the station in 2026.


He adds that Old Oak Common emerged as a prime candidate for an interchange station because of the size of the site and its potential to link in with west and north London as well as creating a direct hook for Crossrail and the West Coast Main Line.

When HS2 began its work, Heffer and his team began to talk about their findings and, he says: “we were very pleased to see the way it was captured in HS2”.

“In particular, by including on the approach of the high speed line to central London an interchange station with the new Crossrail line just west of Paddington, the benefits of both Crossrail and the high speed line are greatly enhanced,” added Adonis in his statement.

Such a Crossrail interchange station will enable fast and frequent service to London’s West End, the City and Docklands.

Journeys from central Birmingham to Canary Wharf would be possible in 70 minutes and from Leeds to Canary Wharf in 1 hour 40 minutes.

It would also solve the Heathrow Hub issue by creating a one-stop Heathrow Express service lasting just over 10 minutes and avoiding what Adonis called “the long and tortuous journey to the airport currently experienced by passengers arriving at Euston, Kings Cross and St Pancras”.

Meanwhile, an interchange near Birmingham came out on top ahead of a different intermediate station for access to towns such as Milton Keynes or Oxford. By serving either of these, the line would suffer journey time penalties and loss of capacity.

The Birmingham interchange will be close to Birmingham airport, the M42 and M6 as well as the existing Birmingham International and NEC.

The HS2 route explained

Last month government published its preferred high speed rail route option. NCE explains the detail of the first line, 206km to the West Midlands.

● From London, between Euston and Old Oak Common the scheme would be in tunnel. It would then become an open box structure then a short tunnel to join the Chiltern Line corridor where the route runs alongside the existing lines.

● The scheme would be tunnelled under the southeastern part of the Chilterns, emerging to the west of Amersham. It would then follow the A413 corridor mostly in cutting before passing to the south-west of Wendover and Aylesbury then continue across Buckinghamshire and the northeast corner of Oxfordshire into Northamptonshire, passing east of Brackley.

● The scheme then runs to the east of Banbury and to the southwest of Southam and between Coventry and Kenilworth before passing to the north-east of Balsall Common to join the M42 corridor near junction 6 (A45).

● At Water Orton (north of Coleshill), a junction would provide the spur into central Birmingham. The spur line would follow the existing rail corridor into central Birmingham where a new terminus station would be provided at Fazeley/Curzon Street. It would also provide access to a train maintenance depot in the Washwood Heath area.

● The HS2 mainline would continue north from Water Orton to link into the West Coast Main Line north of Lichfield.


The tunnelling question

Despite engineering out as much of the tunnelling as possible − such as a tunnelled link to Heathrow there still remains the challenge of creating 10% of the 206km route underground.

“Although tunnels make up 10% of the total route length, they contribute to some 25% of the base construction cost,” says the HS2 report.

The cost of the route per km would halve for the second phase beyond Birmingham to Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds primarily because of the reduced amount of tunnelling likely to be needed.

And although substantial in cost and proportion, it fares well in comparison with HS1, which is tunnelled along 25% of its length.

The tunnels will be in two key sections − first in and around London and the second to mitigate the new line’s environmental impact on the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Around 32% of the route in this section will be tunnelled, while 37% will follow existing route corridors as closely as possible.

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