Amid all the chatter about the rights and wrongs of High Speed 2, in the wake of the government announcing its preferred alignment for the route to Manchester and Leeds today, one striking new criticism came from Maria Eagle, Labour’s shadow transport secretary.
Despite Labour supporting the HS2 project, Eagle scoffed at the idea of building an ‘East Midlands Hub’ station at Toton in the East Midlands, in between the stations at Birmingham and Sheffield Meadowhall (see below). She said:
“I think it’s tremendously important that we link our airports to our cities, not some station in the middle of nowhere near a city and bypass our main hub airports.”
An easy shot to make at the project, but not a fair one if you know the basic rules of building a high-speed rail line.
Apart from the remark about not deciding yet whether to build an HS2 spur to Heathrow, which opens up the whole can of worms on that airport, why does the government want to build a station, as she puts it, in ‘the middle of nowhere’?
HS2 could go to and have stations in Nottingham, Derby and Leicester if its designers intended. But it wouldn’t work. As Andrew McNaughton, HS2’s chief engineer, explained at a talk in 2011:
“If you have not got a lot of people wanting to travel from A to B, it is a vanity project, frankly… Whether a high-speed rail line is successful financially depends on whether a) it decongests and b) whether you were going to have to invest anyway”.
Put simply, HSR only works if you’re dealing with large numbers of people trying to get around. That is why HS2 revolves around the axis of Britain’s two largest cities, London and Birmingham. It’s a waste of construction costs, not to mention trains, to provide very high capacity services to small populations. McNaughton described a high-speed train with 1100 passengers as being like “a jumbo jet landing in London every minute”. (Remember, because it’s high-speed, the train frequency is more like a metro/Underground than your West Coast Main Line.) It’s hard to believe that many people would want to go to Derby every minute.
To preserve the time savings that HSR brings, the number of stations needs to be as small as possible for the number of people served. An East Midlands hub station would serve Derby, Leicester and Nottingham with roughly equal ease of access – bringing the line to all three settlements instead of just one – and just 1.93km (1.2 miles) from the M1 motorway.
And here’s another point that politicians miss – although connecting to the centre of cities seems like a good idea on the face of it, it’s a mixed blessing. Most people don’t live bang in the middle of cities, so they have to travel in to the centre in order to use the train station, often having to use their car and navigate heavy traffic (adding to pollution and delay). Situating stations outside cities is actually a benefit to many people living in the outskirts and suburbs who have an easier journey. Plus, it means more space to build large stations to handle 1100 passengers per train, and to build the necessary infrastructure to connect with the city centres – light rail, bus routes and cycle routes, all greener than getting in your car.
The government suggests (p48) that the Nottingham tram network, currently being extended under a £570 million PFI project, could be extended just half a mile to the East Midlands hub, and promises (p50) that the Sheffield Supertram will get a new station at Sheffield Meadowhall – which is already five minutes’ train journey from Sheffield Midland station. This is arguably better than digging up the centre of Sheffield to massively expand the station and disrupting existing rail services for up to 16 years.
The French are following this example with their Nimes-Montpellier HSR link, currently under construction. As this map from rail authority RFF shows, two new stations will be built actually outside Nimes and Montpellier. They’re intended to be not merely stations but multimodal transport hubs connecting to the city centres and fostering growth in new districts.
But hey, it’s easier to make jokes about stations to nowhere.