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High-speed line plan signals new rail era

Network Rail last week published plans for a £34bn high-speed rail system linking London and the Midlands with the north west and Scotland.

The rail operator’s chief executive Iain Coucher said the new rail lines were “urgently required”.

Speaking at the publication of Network Rail’s high-speed rail study, Coucher said that if passenger numbers continued to grow as forecast, the West Coast Main Line would reach capacity some time between 2020 and 2025.

But building the line would take 13 years − five years to plan and eight years to construct − implying that work ought to have started in 2007.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have backed high-speed rail, but the Labour government is yet to show its hand (see box below).

“There is a great deal of urgency. There is a good business case for this and it will pay for itself.”

Iain Coucher, Network Rail

It is waiting for the results of the Department for Transport’s High Speed 2 study, due to report in December. However, this study restricts itself to looking at routes running between London and the West Midlands.

“There is a great deal of urgency,” said Coucher. The new lines, which would have spurs to Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester and could deliver 9,100 new seats into a new London terminus at a site likely to be close to King’s Cross St Pancras, he said.

While the plan does include anticipated costs − £20.5bn plus a 66% “optimism bias” for cost overruns taking the total to £34bn − it does not include proposals on how the money could be sourced, nor how the scheme could be built.

Economically viable

Coucher did hint that the cost of the line was small relative to government spending. He said a spend of “around £3bn over 10 years is a fraction of government spending”. But he added that Network Rail would be unlikely to build these lines. “Something like [public private partnership] High Speed 1 should build it,” he said.

Coucher said Network Rail’s New Lines Programme report shows that building such lines is economically viable. “There is a good business case for this and it will pay for itself. Our general view is that government is committed to large infrastructure spending − look at the £16bn committed to Crossrail,” he said.

Network Rail is expected to publish further studies on routes along the north east and Pennine corridors in the coming months.

“The ICE would like to see a secure source of funding for projects like this that are vital to our future well being.”

Tom Foulkes, ICE

Plans to eke more capacity out of the Great Western route through faster trains and more frequent services were released on Monday. But Coucher said that any high-speed rail programme would have to be based on the London-Birmingham-Manchester-Glasgow corridor, where Network Rail claims the benefit-cost ratio is 1.8:1.

The ICE welcomed the report. ICE director general Tom Foulkes said: “The government must now push forward with the National Policy Statement for the rail network promised in last year’s Planning Act.

“The ICE would also like to see a secure source of funding for projects like this that are vital to our future well being, perhaps via the creation of a National Infrastructure Investment Bank as proposed in the USA.”

Competing plans

The £34bn Network Rail preferred option links London to Scotland, with spurs to Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. It splits in Scotland to terminate at both Glasgow and Edinburgh.

This plan does not currently go to Heathrow because it could reduce the value and benefits of the preferred line by £3bn. However, Network Rail said there would be more of a business case in the long term as road and airway congestion increases.

If Heathrow is to be included in the future, it recommends a spur rather than having the station directly on the route.

The Green Party says the route should be extended to the north of Scotland and have a link to High Speed 1. Network Rail rejected this last proposal on cost grounds.

The Conservatives last year revealed a £15bn plan between London, Heathrow, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds to be paid from future rail allocations.

The Liberal Democrats have a plan to raise £1.9bn a year from a lorry road user charging system and would use the money to contribute to financing a new high-speed line.

Leeds has been left off Network Rail’s plans. The rail operator found that connecting Leeds through Manchester has a large incremental cost and does not provide a “significant journey time saving over the existing London-Leeds service on the East Coast Main Line.”

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