The proposed £34bn high speed rail link from London to Glasgow would not have the greatest environmental benefit, and ballast track would introduce additional costs, according to pressure groups this week.
The Network Rail proposal would see journey times from London to Glasgow cut to just two hours and 16 minutes. Journeys from London to Birmingham would take just 45 minutes. 1,500 miles of new track and 138 bridges over roads and current railway lines would be built.
A rival scheme: High Speed North has emerged which would provide a permanent link to High Speed One, with links to Heathrow and then north to Leicester, Sheffield, Leeds, Newcastle and finally Edinburgh and Glasgow. Spurs would lead to Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool.
The proponents 2M, which campaigns against expansion at London’s Heathrow airport, believes that the scheme would cost approximately the same as the Network Rail scheme, but they say a series of economic and environmental tests should be applied to the Network Rail plan.
2M’s spokesman, Wandsworth Council leader Edward Lister said: “There are two key environmental questions for any government: can we build a high speed network which will eliminate the need for domestic flights and will this new network itself be capable of meeting the highest environmental standards?
“The value for money tests are equally critical. All the main proposals cost around the same money but exclude major regional centres in the North and East Midlands. If we want to maximise the economic impact on the UK regions then we need an inclusive route that benefits as many cities as possible on both the east and west side of the country.
“We also need to start with the clear aim of building a route that serves England and Scotland. The current enthusiasm for a Heathrow-Birmingham link is short-termist. There may never be the demand to make this route pay at which point the case for a national network could be set back a generation.
“The Government should commission these environmental and value for money studies now. At this stage it’s not so much about where the line goes but the more basic question of what we want high speed rail to do.”
Another group - Britpave - has said traditional ballast track is old fashioned an expensive for any new high speed line.
Britpave director David Jones said: “These proposals are for a 21st century railway line. However, the use of a 19th century-based ballast rail track system could undermine the speed, efficiency and safety of the high-speed trains.
“In addition to the ongoing maintenance requirements of ballast tracks, there is the issue of ballast pick-up whereby the pressure and vibration of high-speed trains lifts up ballast from the track. This damages train wheels and so increases operating costs,” he said.
“The French opted for traditional ballast when the high-speed TGV network was developed. They have managed to make it work – but at a cost. On some lines the rails have to be swept clean and the ballast replaced and repacked every night. The French are now reported to be examining replacing the ballast track with slab track.”
Networks in Japan and Germany use slab track for their high speed networks, which minimises unplanned maintenance.