The UK government changes its high-speed train plan

Avanti Pendolinos train at Manchester Piccadilly on July 2, 2021. The new HS2 station is to be built to the right of the current station. (Keith Fender)

LONDON — The UK government released what it called the “Integrated North and Midlands Rail Plan” last week, which sets out plans totaling £96 billion ($130 billion) to build several new lines railways in the north of England. However, the plan also contained some less welcome news for parts of the country, noting that the eastern part of the HS2 high-speed line planned for 200mph will be shorter than originally planned, and no longer aims to serve northern cities directly. of Sheffield and Leeds.

Extensive plans for new and improved rail lines linking all the major towns in the north of England, drawn up in recent years at the instigation of the government in London, have also been reduced to a single line which covers only part of the route.

High speed changes

Map showing routes and journey times in England
The planned high-speed connections of the Integrated Railway Plan, as well as current and future journey times. (UK Ministry of Transport)

The original plan for the High Speed ​​2 system was a Y-shaped network, with a line from London to Birmingham and two branches, one northwest to Manchester and another northeast to Leeds. The London-Birmingham section is under construction and the Birmingham-Manchester route will be built, mostly in the 2030s. But the northeast section will be much shorter, stretching only from Birmingham to Nottingham. From Nottingham, existing lines will be upgraded and electrified for use by HS2 trains.

New routes for the north of England

Plans for new and improved routes across the north of England, drawn up by a specially created transit authority known as Transport for the North (TfN), have been widely rejected by the London government as too expensive or too slow to build. The integrated rail plan includes a new 40-mile high-speed line from Warrington (near Liverpool) via Manchester to the east of the Huddersfield area near Leeds, providing a new route through the Pennine Hills which stretch from north to south in the north of England.

Silver train with blue border approaches the station
A TransPennine Express train arrives in Huddersfield, England in January 2020. The route will be electrified, with a new line being built west to Manchester. (Keith Fender)

Several existing east-west railway routes cross the Pennine Range, but all were cheaply constructed by Victorian engineers and have steep grades and/or tunnels with restricted clearances. The main existing road from Manchester to York will also be electrified with overhead wires, allowing faster services, particularly on the steeper sections.

Plans for new, purpose-built passenger stations in Manchester, as well as the neighboring cities of Liverpool and Bradford, have largely been shelved. A surface station in Manchester is planned for HS2 services; the local government and TfN had advocated an underground station, allowing high-speed services to head elsewhere in the area without reversing. This was rejected, contrary to a trend across Europe to reconfigure old terminus stations as through stations by adding tunnels or using bypass lines.

Half-hearted reaction

Reaction to the integrated plan has been less than enthusiastic from regional leaders and politicians, including some from the government’s own party, and from the wider UK rail industry. On one level, that’s odd, because the proposals include multiple projects that have been advocated for many years.

Had the proposals been completely new, the reaction might have been much more positive – but expectations, fueled in part by previous promises from Prime Minister Boris Johnson, have led most people to expect, at a minimum, anything the previous HS2 plan plus a new line through the North of England. So a plan that cuts both has left many unhappy, though in total it represents a substantial upgrade to the network, though much of the work won’t be complete until the mid-2040s.

Jose P. Rogers