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The need for speed

A new railway network for super-fast high speed trains could reshape the UK and make rail travel faster than ever. Jo Stimpson reports.

The civil engineering world is abuzz with news of the government’s plans for a massive £30bn high speed rail scheme to create a new rail network across Britain.
High Speed 2 will link up London with Birmingham, and will later be extended to northern England and Scotland.

High speed trains will travel at speeds of up to 400km/h, meaning a journey between London and Birmingham that currently takes around 84 minutes will take only 49 minutes.

High speed railways have been popular around the world for a long time. Japan has had its high speed Shinkansen trains since the 1960s. In France, the TGV (train à grande vitesse) high speed network began service in the 1980s. The UK currently only has a short stretch of high speed railway line called High Speed 1 - the 108km line that runs from London to the opening of the Channel Tunnel in Folkestone, Kent.

But now we are set to catch up with our global peers. The government has just made its official proposal for the new High Speed 2 scheme. The proposed route comprises 536km of track in total, arranged in a ‘Y’ shape that starts at London Euston and runs up to Birmingham and the West Midlands before branching into two to serve Manchester to the North West and the East Midlands, Sheffield and Leeds to the North East.

Transport secretary Lord Adonis says the railway would create 10,000 jobs and would bring £2 worth of benefits for every £1 spent on its construction.

A journey between London and Birmingham that currently takes around 84 minutes will take only 49 minutes

Our railways are already extremely congested and the new network will open up plenty of new capacity. The speed of travel between cities will also be great news for both business and leisure travel.

A report by high speed rail pressure group Greengauge 21 said the project could boost the UK’s annual economic output by up to £29bn by the year 2040.

But High Speed 2 has been a source of contention. Debate has been rife over where the trains should stop. Too many different stops would slow the trains down, so there can only be a handful - and everybody wants to be part of the new network.

The government’s proposal was particularly controversial for omitting a stop at Heathrow airport. Engineering consultancy Arup had pushed for a “Heathrow Hub” providing fast access to the airport from around the country.

But Adonis says the idea would require intensive tunnelling at a hefty £2bn extra cost and would require building on a flood plain. Instead, he says, passengers will be able to change onto the new Crossrail railway which will take them to Heathrow in around 10 minutes.

High Speed Rail

Trains will reach speeds of up to 400km/h

Whatever its route, the new network could bring some interesting changes. Greengauge 21 said High Speed 2 could reshape the economic geography of the country. The network would make national travel so fast that it would create a single national market for service sector and knowledge-based businesses, rather than a series of city-based markets, said the group.

Northern regions would enjoy the greatest economic benefits, especially Yorkshire and the Humber, Scotland, the North East and North West and the East and West Midlands.

Greengauge 21 said the UK’s current economic geography, which has the most prosperous areas concentrated in the South East and London, would change. With the high speed network in place, prosperity would spread more evenly across the country, helping to close the north-south divide.

The government will now enter a period of consultation with local authorities and organisations, with a view to making an official decision next year.

With work to build the scheme planned to start in 2017, and the first trains set to start running in 2026, it will be a long time before you will be able to use the high speed railway. But this landmark project will be worth the wait.

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