Rail journalist Alan Marshall argues that many of the capacity benefits contained in the 51M alternative to HS2 will be achieved within the next few years anyway……and without the need to spend money on a grade-separated junction.
‘Project 110’ is an innovative plan developed by the London Midland (LM) train operating company, which will upgrade part of its fleet of 100mph Desiro electric trains to run at 110mph.
With Department for Transport agreement, LM is also expanding its fleet with a further ten Desiro trains also capable of 110mph.
The significance of the higher speed is that two 110 mph trains can fit in the timetable ‘path’ of one 100 mph train because the departure slot from London Euston immediately following the 100 mph path cannot be used by a 125 mph train as it would catch up the slower, preceding train.
As a result, this creates an additional Fast line ‘path’ in each direction between Euston and Milton Keynes during off-peak hours and up to two extra Fast line paths in the morning and evening peak periods.
London Midland’s plan, which is now subject to consultation, proposes acceleration of its Euston-Crewe service so that trains run direct between Milton Keynes and Rugby via Kilsby Tunnel, instead of taking the slower, longer route via Northampton.
At 110 mph this can be achieved without impacting on the Intercity West Coast services currently operated by Virgin.
The extra path thus created will then be used between Euston and Milton Keynes to maintain the three trains per hour pattern between Euston, Northampton and Birmingham — including the three LM trains that call every hour at Coventry and Tile Hill (which is now used increasingly by passengers from Kenilworth).
London Midland intends to implement ‘Project 110’ during the off-peak from December this year, and extend it to peak periods from May 2014, when the additional 110mph trains have been delivered. Three Warwickshire towns will benefit from the new timetables — Atherstone, Nuneaton and Rugby.
The off-peak journey time from London Euston to Nuneaton (and other stations in the Trent Valley) will be cut by 21 minutes from next December and in the evening peak period by 34 minutes from May 2014.
It’s worth remembering at this point that Atherstone, Rugeley Trent Valley and Stone would lose their London services entirely under the 51M scheme, according to Network Rail.
In addition, Rugby will gain a second fast train each hour to and from London, including an hourly direct fast service to and from Milton Keynes (saving 13 minutes on journeys via Northampton now). This is important, as both Northampton and Milton Keynes are key centres in a region which, as a result of past and present Government policies, continues to have the fastest-growing population in the country.
The new timetable and extra trains, together with the addition of two carriages (an extra 150 standard class seats) to the majority of Virgin Pendolino inter-city services during the remainder of this year, will result in a substantial uplift in the capacity of trains to and from Euston — indeed, not a lot different from what has been proposed in 51M’s ‘Optimised Alternative’ scheme.
At present, in the evening peak from 17.00-18.00, Virgin and LM provide around 6,500 seats out of Euston on the Fast line. From December this year the number will rise to over 8,000 (assuming all the present Virgin services are formed by then of 11-car sets).
But when ‘Project 110’ is fully implemented, in two years, the one-hour figure will be around 9,500.
Rail Package 2 (RP2), from which the ‘Optimised Alternative’ has been developed, would provide some 9,700 seats, and 51M’s around 10,400.
But the difference with 51M’s proposal is largely accounted for by a proposed additional inter-city train that would require construction of the 14 mile-long Stafford by-pass line at a cost of £1.23 billion.
This line would be built through open countryside, from Colwich to Norton Bridge. When 51M question the economic case for HS2, how can they claim £1.23bn is value for money for just one extra train per hour?
But the key issue now is that this extra capacity, broadly similar to that proposed in RP2 and by 51M, is already being added — because it is required, now, to cope with the present and continuing rising demand for passenger travel on the West Coast Main Line.
In no way will it obviate the need for the new HS2 line. Indeed there is growing concern that, with continuing passenger growth, the new line will be needed sooner than the current plan for its first stage opening in 2026.