The shortcomings of the 51M ‘alternative’ to HS2

Rail operations and planning consultant William Barter

No evidence to back up HS2 critics’ claims

Rail operations and planning consultant William Barter explained the shortcomings of the 51M alternative to HS2 in previous posts – Part one and Part Two. 

HS2 opponents HS2AA responded by criticising the work of Mr Barter and Chris Howe of HS2NW.

However, their statement was a handful of sentences offering no evidence to back up claims Mr Barter was incorrect.

Mr Barter has concluded that there are serious concerns with 51M’s ‘alternative’, but worst of all, it rules out major improvements to other services that become possible after HS2 releases capacity on the WCML.

Mr Barter writes:

HS2AA have called my previous analysis of the 51M “optimised alternative” services pattern “inaccurate”, although they have failed to identify any specific flaw in what I wrote. However, one of the authors of this “schematic” tells me that it does not actually represent their intentions, which are that the service levels should remain as now, with the two Euston – Northampton – Birmingham trains that appear to omit intermediate stations other than Coventry and Birmingham International actually making local calls.

But, as I stated in Part 1 of this Guest Blog, these two trains are shown as timed to run immediately in front of, and with the same running time as, the fast Euston – Birmingham trains. That just doesn’t work if they are to serve local stations as well. Obviously if they make additional calls, their running times will extend. And without multiple track, unless the fast trains are to be slowed to match the running times of the stopping trains, the stopping trains must be retimed to follow the fast trains. That means running about 6 minutes later than shown, and thus leaving Euston 6 minutes later, in different paths to those shown. And the trouble with that is that, on a mixed use railway, the timetable is a delicate structure that can’t just be chopped and changed. Like the atoms in a molecule, some relationships between trains work and some don’t, and if you move one train, there is no certainty that all the others can be adjusted to make another stable structure.

The authors of this plan maintain strongly that it is “an illustrative specification”, but if so, for one thing “illustrating” an impossible service doesn’t illustrate very much at all, and for another it is absurd for HS2AA to claim that the optimised alternative is a timetable let alone one that has been declared robust. And as it is the level of detail that gives the 51M plan its veneer of credibility, complaining that we are not meant to take the detail seriously is a bit of an own-goal.

But there is a worse problem! If like me, you saw those limited stop Euston – Northampton – Birmingham trains and thought they were a proposed improvement to the present slow or infrequent interurban links for locations between London and Birmingham, dream on. 51M does not intend to, and accepts that it cannot, improve those links.

HS2 frees the WCML of fast through trains

But HS2 can do precisely that, by freeing the West Coast Main Line of fast through trains so that the service it offers can be more appropriate to the needs of the locations that lie on it. This has been made clear by HS2’s April 2012 Demand and Appraisal Report, which sets out a specification for West Coast Main Line services after HS2. Some major improvements to meet the needs of the intermediate stations include:

  • An hourly through train between London and Walsall, calling at main stations only on the way;
  • This, combined with an hourly Euston – Birmingham – Liverpool train, gives both Watford and Milton Keynes a half-hourly direct fast service to Birmingham compared with just hourly today;
  • The same trains give Birmingham and Coventry a service that makes it realistic to commute to the major employment centre of Milton Keynes, perhaps to one of the engineering management jobs being created in Network Rail’s new headquarters there;
  • A further half-hourly pattern of limited-stop trains Euston – Northampton – New Street, calling only at Coventry and Birmingham International after Rugby. Yes, that’s the trains that 51m show in their schematic but say they don’t mean, giving Rugby four fast trains per hour to Coventry and Birmingham;
  • With stops by other services, Rugby gains a total of four fast direct trains to London each hour, plus others via Northampton;
  • The hourly Euston – Glasgow train calls at Milton Keynes, restoring regular through services to the North West and Scotland, whilst the Euston – Liverpool trains restore its direct connections to that city, and its services to Manchester, Crewe and North Wales are preserved;
  • And finally, with all WCML trains calling at Milton Keynes, that growing city receives a total of seven fast (non-stop or calling only at Watford) trains per hour, compared with just three today.

But a word of caution – this is a specification, and just as no plan of battle survives first contact with the enemy, no train service specification survives first contact with the graph paper. Having criticised 51M for presenting a specification as reality, the same caveat must apply to this. Something will change between specification and implementation, but I have taken the post-HS2 specification through the same analysis as I applied to 51M’s plan, and it survives.

HS2 is ‘nothing less than a revolution in connectivity’

The post-HS2 service on the West Coast Main Line would be nothing less than a revolution in connectivity for towns between Watford and the West Midlands. The markets are there, but badly served as the concentration of fast through trains on the WCML makes improvements impossible.

HS2 brings these improvements, but the 51M “optimised alternative” rules them out. For ever.

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3 Responses to The shortcomings of the 51M ‘alternative’ to HS2

  1. Chris Neville-Smith says:

    I got the impression that that main argument from HS2AA was this comment from Chris Howe’s recent “51m – it’s bad” paper (a similar remark was made for William Barter’s piece):

    “HS2 North West made no effort to clarify any of these points with 51m, preferring unsubstantiated and ill-founded attacks on 51m’s alternative rather than engage in serious debate.”

    This seems to be implying that if you should contact 51m/HS2AA in advance of publishing these sorts of papers, giving them a chance to rebut this, and take this into account before releasing a version to the public – and the fact that Chris Howe and William Barter didn’t renders their entire arguments invalid.

    I might have taken this notion seriously if it wasn’t for the staggering double-standards involved. Did 51m or HS2AA contact HS2 ltd in advance of their “We’ve looked at HS2 – it’s bad” advert? Given that it took a complaint to the ASA to get the slightest acknowledgement of factual inaccuracies, I think we can assume the answer’s no.

    There is a long-standing precedent that you can publicly criticise somebody else’s ideas with or without asking them for what they think first. Asking them in advance is, at best, an optional courtesy. I do not expect any anti group, be it StopHS2, HS2AA, 51m, BetterThanHS2, Greengauge 20/20 or INTTWWMRI(PINU)(H) [1] to have to contact HS2 Ltd before attacking the scheme. that’s called free speech. And yet at least one of those groups thinks they have the right to be consulted before their pet scheme is criticised WHILST NOT DOING THEM SAME THEMSELVES.

    [1] That’s “It’s Not True That We Want More Roads Instead (Provided It’s Not Near Us) (Honest)”.

    • gohs2 says:

      You’re right, Chris, there’s no requirement to check with them first. However, we have asked them on repeated occasions to explain their criticism of William Barter (beyond a short rebuttal offering no evidence on their website). They haven’t done so.

  2. Pingback: Don’t be fooled by the failed 51M “alternative” | hs2northwest

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