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Pressure mounts for HS2 to reduce speed


Pressure is mounting on High Speed 2 (HS2) bosses to cut costs by reducing train speeds. 

As project promoter HS2 Ltd looks to reduce its costs, a leading economist and a top rail academic have called for train speeds to be capped at 320km/h instead of 360km/h.  

HS2 Ltd is facing cost pressures on main civils packages to build the line so that it can keep within ts £56bn budget. Last week New Civil Engineer revealed how the company had comissioned Aecom engineering director Mark Raiss to carry out an independent cost cutting study

The route alignment for HS2 is being designed for 400km/h trains, with trains limited to a maximum speed of 360km/h or 320km/h in tunnels.

But National Infrastructure Committee commissioner and economist Bridget Rosewell has told the House of Lords economic affairs committee that said she had never understood why the new high speed line was looking to run trains at 360km/h.

“Speed isn’t irrelevant, I don’t want to say it’s just about capacity and it’s not about speed, but I’ve never understood the need for very high speed,” Rosewell said, “I’ve said this right at the very beginning back in 2008/09. I don’t see why we are privileging at 400km/h for the cost that that would imply.”

Rosewell added that designing the line for 400km/h constrained engineers’ ability to “sensibly” plan the route alignment.

“That was the top priority [to design for 400km/h] and then everything filled in after that,” she said. “It was a mistake.”

High speed trains in France and Japan operate at 320km/h. Rosewell added that the 360km/h speed limit would produce a time saving of only two or three minutes on services running at 320km/h.

“A matter of two to three minutes saving seems implausible that we could ever justify that,” she said. “I see no reason to go faster than the French TGVs, I think it’s silly.”

Southampton University professor of geotechnical engineering and track expert William Powrie told New Civil Engineer that reducing the speed limit to 320km/h would save money by eliminating the need to run trains on a concrete slabtrack base, allowing track to be laid on cheaper ballast.

New Civil Engineer revealed in September 2016 that slabtrack was the final choice of trackbed technology for the first phase of the line after heated lobbying. Proponents of slabtrack system had argued that ballasted track systems are noisy in use, expensive to maintain and even pose safety risks with individual ballast particles liable to be dislodged by the turbulent air caused by the passing high speed trains.

Conversely advocates of ballast-based systems had pointed to the much lower cost and flexibility in use afforded by such systems.

“If they did do ballast to start with, it would not be a disaster, you would still get the benefits. But it comes down to what can be afforded,” said Powrie.

Both systems are in use on modern high speed railways around the world. Japanese, German and Dutch high speed rail networks tend to be based on concrete slab track. But French and Spanish lines tend to be ballasted.

The first phase of High Speed 2 arguably lends itself to slabtrack as a high proportion of the route is in tunnel – where slabtrack has already been specified as the trackbed of choice. This is a simple economic decision as slabtrack systems require a shallower base which means the tunnels can be smaller in internal diameter. 

New Civil Engineer understands a change in speed would be possible within the scope of the hybrid bill. According to a source, the focus of the bill is on the design envelope of the project rather than specific operational constraints like train speeds.

However, the government has previously said that the business case for the line could be compromised if the journey time was increased as a result of cutting train speeds and the Department for Transport will have the final say on any speed adjustments.

A DfT spokesperson said there were no plans to lower the speed of the route saying the higher line speed would deliver long-term benefits to HS2 passengers for years to come. It added that the track type had been based on the weight of the trains passing over it, not the speed of the trains.

“HS2 is already underway with 7,000 people and 2,000 businesses working on building what will become the backbone of Britain’s rail network,” said the spokesperson. “Track material is chosen based primarily on tonnage of traffic, and not on speed. There are no plans to lower maximum speeds across the route.”

The DfT is currently procuring high speed trains capable of running at 360km/h with all the railway systems – track, signalling and overhead line power supply – also designed for running at 360km/h.

An HS2 Ltd spokesperson said: “HS2 Ltd continues to work to the scope and budget requirements that have been set out by government. We are working with our supply chain to drive efficiencies and economies of scale across every part of the project.”

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Readers' comments (5)

  • This is the most sensible proposal for reducing costs on HS2 that I have heard in some time. It has been apparent for many years that this project was mis-named and should have been called "HC2" (or HC1). In other words "High Capacity" because it's never really been about speed (certainly in the first phase) but about improving capacity. I have to say that I was not a full supporter of this project until I understood that capacity and avoiding disruption of current capacity was behind the need for this new line.

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  • What about operating costs. The faster the trains go the more energy they consume to force through the air and combat friction. Surely we should be looking for a more environmentally acceptable solution. As above it only saves a few minutes and the journey time also includes getting to and from the HS2 stations and awaiting the train, so negligible overall.

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  • The high speed element was only to satisfy the vanity of MPs and other. The additional capacity provided for passengers and freight will satisfy the transport industry.

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  • The speed reduction seems to be some much needed common sense surfacing, albeit much later than it should have. Looking at mature HSR operators around the world, high speeds are being recognised as costly vanity measures and small reductions provide high reductions in operating costs (energy and maintenance). A bit disappointing to see William Powrie suggesting the move back to ballast though - while I understand the current political issue is capital cost, the whole life cost of slab track for HSR is substantially lower and it would be inexcusable to take the cheap option now and pay many times the difference in increased maintenance costs in the future.

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  • Philip Alexander

    What additional capacity for freight? HS2 is (unfortunately) planned to be a high speed passenger line (with NO freight paths) for which there will have to be premium prices charged to passengers in an effort to recoup the ridiculous sum of money being spent (at least £100 BILLION). If not, then every taxpayer in the country will be subsidizing the fat cat passengers to save 10 minutes of their highly important time from London to Birmingham.
    So the only way that there will be more capacity available (other than in a highspeed train) will be if passenger services on the existing conventional lines out of Euston, St Pancras and Kings Cross are reduced, thus freeing up paths for freight. But remember that most freight trains run more slowly than passenger trains so it isn't just a matter of cutting one passenger path and giving it to freight, a slow freight will occupy far more than one passenger train path. Which rather begs the question. If capacity is such a problem, why isn't the railway clogged with freight traffic during the night?
    But let's not get into that sort of detail, since the idiots who gave HS2 the go ahead clearly haven't bothered to look at the detail either.
    Let's not kid ourselves that HS2 is (now) all about capacity because it can't be. The premium prices will deter most ordinary (ie non-business expense account) passengers from using HS2 trains, leaving the existing franchise operators operating the same number of trains as they do now. So the only extra capacity will be that provided by highspeed trains on HS2. So we come back to the point that HS2 is only going to benefit a very few people for whom rail fares are an irrelevance since they will business expenses.
    The whole "raison d'etre" for HS2 is completely flawed anyway and to reduce the line OPERATING speed from 360 to 320km/h, thus reducing the DESIGN speed from 400 to (I assume) 360km/h is neither here nor there in its overall attractiveness. In fact, the business case would now have to be completely re-worked to take into account the longer journey times. I know we are talking a few minutes to Birmingham here, but the original business case would have put a value on those minutes aggregated over the first 50 odd years to generate cost savings. So it's not unreasonable to ask for a new, PUBLIC business case.
    The original business case reckoned there was a BCR of 2.3 at an original (back of an envelope) cost of £36 Billion, so apparently yielding benefits of £82 Billion at present day costs. So any construction cost greater than £82 Billion will give a negative BCR.
    Please recognize that this project was conceived (by whom? Consultants, contractors?) by those who sought work out of it and for some crazy reason was adopted by government as their pet vanity project. It has no intrinsic merit at all and must be scrapped immediately.
    Tinkering at the edges to make it cheaper does not address the basic issue which is that it is the wrong solution to the wrong problem. If capacity is the problem from north to south, build a freight only line which would have normal line (freight) speeds of say 160km/h at a fraction of the cost and divert all north south freight onto it. Such a line could even be used as a diversion route for conventional passenger trains. A dedicated high speed railway line cannot be used in this way.
    There will be those who point at HS1 as a success but that is a unique situation since it links into the highspeed network in Europe. We don't need a similar high speed network in the UK, we just need a RELIABLE network with a bit of built-in redundancy. Once again, HS2 will be engineered such that conventional passenger and freight trains cannot use it and it doesn't even connect to HS1. How stupid is that?

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