With massive increases in passenger numbers forecast and an increasing volume of freight, rail capacity is set to become ever more of an issue on a network creaking under the strain of traffic many times that it was designed for.
Ongoing upgrades to the West and East Coast Main Lines should help to ease the pressure, but as should be expected of an organisation responsible for the strategic development of the UK railway network, the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) is looking at a longer term solution to supplement both lines.
Working from an integrated office in London's Holborn, engineers from consultant WS Atkins are just over half way through a year long £1.3M study looking at the feasibility of a new northsouth high speed rail link.
'The study is about understanding the transport needs of the future, and analysing the costs and benefits of such a scheme, ' says SRA infrastructure project manager Patrick Bateson, who is leading the project.
Bateson has 20 Atkins engineers and planners working full time on the project, and four or five SRA staff working part time.
By assuming an opening date of around 2015, the team is generating models that will predict post upgrade congestion on the railways, using assumptions for roads and in the air increases.
This allows them to forecast the impact of a new line.
Various economic and financial models will generate a number of different solutions.
The benefits of a new high speed line are also being compared with possible further major upgrade schemes, as well as with a new conventional line. As Bateson explains: 'We need to compare the scheme with all the possible alternatives or it would not provide valid conclusions.'
One of the broad conclusions the team has generated so far is that city centre access for the proposed route is vital. This fits well with the government's regional policy guidance, with out of town car parks seen to have both access and environmental drawbacks.
This link is unlikely therefore to be a completely new line, but will use existing lines to get in to town centres where capacity is available. This will provide financial as well as time savings on planning enquiries, inevitable if a new line was to be taken into a town or city centre.
Any scheme would be completed in phases, Bateson believes, as a single contract would be neither affordable nor resourceable.
Mindful of the environmental concerns, he says that substantial costs are being built in to any final plans for the multibillion pound project. Bateson admires the way the Channel Tunnel Rail link (CTRL) team has managed to avoid negative publicity while constructing a new line through virgin countryside.
No final route has as yet been decided and the team is looking at a series of models that predict where the major passenger moves will be, while avoiding environmentally sensitive areas such as national parks.
Whatever the route, the time savings a new high speed line would, Bateson believes, not only benefit UK passengers but also provide a competitive alternative for those travelling to continental Europe.
A connection to the CTRL would cut journey times from the North to Paris and Brussels to below the critical three hour barrier above which statistics show that passengers will use rail instead of air travel. Bateson insists, however, that airport links to the new line are crucial.