Fast track to change

Commentators are predicting an imminent and major crisis on the UK’s transport network. Unfortunately they are all wrong – the crisis is not imminent, it has already arrived. George Coupe and Helen Knight report.

Commentators are predicting an imminent and major crisis on the UK’s transport network. Unfortunately they are all wrong – the crisis is not imminent, it has already arrived.

Crucial sections of the motorway network, including most of the M25, are approaching uselessness, clogged with stationary traffic for long periods of the day.

Meanwhile, our railways have been in a state of failure for almost a decade. Since privatisation a catalogue of fatal accidents, Orwellian adjustments to the timetabling system and plans to close routes such as the West Coast Main Line for months on end signal that we have passed well beyond a significant milestone. We have reached the point at which, in the accepted culture of make-do-and-mend, the idea of a radical overhaul has become the nightmare scenario for government and the rail industry alike.

In some quarters it has been argued that we should abandon the railways altogether. They cost too much to upgrade, cannot be run as profitable businesses and cause huge losses to the economy due to delayed and cancelled services.

To this school of thought the answer is to build more roads. This, of course, is a short-term solution – with the sting in the tail that it makes the root of the problem all the more difficult to tackle when it eventually has to be addressed.

The answer in 15 or 20 years’ time will be the same solution that cries out to be undertaken today – railways are the only way to alleviate the transport crisis that has held the country in its grip for so long.

The Commission for Integrated Transport called on the government and the Strategic Rail Authority in February to start planning for a network of high-speed railway lines. ‘Schemes that offer good value for money should be actively pursued,’ it stated.

To this end, The Engineer and several respected railway experts outline a proposal for just such a network, including a plan of the routes, a specification for a fleet of trains, signalling systems, station location and design and other associated passenger benefits such as detailed and reliable information on the running of trains and advanced seat reservation services.

For too long the rail industry and government have been too afraid to consider new ideas. Fortunately, The Engineer has more freedom to do so, and our plan is devised with the express purpose of kick-starting the debate on high-speed trains for the UK. We believe that the proposal is bold enough to attract people away from the roads, and significant enough in its capacity to accommodate future growth over the next 50 years.

We also believe it is affordable in terms of economic and environmental returns. It is designed to form the backbone of a modern and integrated transport network. In scope the plan is intended to match the ideals set out recently by Prof Rod Smith, head of mechanical engineering at Imperial College.

‘What is needed is an unsentimental review of the present system,’ Smith said. ‘We need to think over timescales of 20 and 50 years rather than concentrate on the illusion of the quick wins. The wrong question is always asked: ‘Can we afford to do it?’ The answer to that question is: ‘We cannot afford not to’.’

Why do we need a high-speed network? Because the UK rail network has run out of capacity and high-speed trains offer the best increases in capacity available. In the UK, trains are often overcrowded, but more importantly the network itself has no more room for extra services. Capacity is restricted because there are bottlenecks in the system, we have a mixed-traffic railway (freight and passenger trains sharing the same lines) and the layout forces a large number of conflicting movements. Running times are almost impossible to maintain, so levels of punctuality are very poor.

Prof Smith compares the UK with Japan. On similar routes, capacity in the UK is 10 to 15 times less than it is there. ‘In Japan 30 per cent of passenger kilometres are carried on trains, in the UK it is about six per cent. We have a target to increase the train mode share by 50 per cent of its current value over the next 10 years.

‘The Strategic Rail Authority is shying away from this modest target. But even this will do nothing to relieve traffic congestion, since it represents only about a three per cent switch from roads. This is such a small decrease that it will be swamped by the huge future increase in road usage.’

Smith sets the target of a five-fold rise in rail usage to make a significant impact on road congestion. The only technology available to achieve this is the dedicated high-speed railway.

During the 1980s and early 1990s France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Belgium all built high-speed railways. By the end of 2002 a total of 3,260km of high-speed line were in operation on mainland Europe. An EU strategy plans to increase this to 6,000km over the next six years, and then take it to 10,000km by 2020.

The UK is the only senior European player not involved. Yet its network is groaning under the strain. Capacity is at the root of the problem, and this can only be increased by new lines and faster trains.

Prof Smith said: ‘The success of high-speed trains stems from a dedicated right-of-way with no level crossings, no conflicting movements and all the traffic moving at the same high speed, thus giving huge capacity.’

The Integrated Transport Commission said a dedicated high-speed network could provide an extra 220 trains a day compared with a potential 98 additional trains following the completion of the West Coast Main Line upgrade. The West Coast programme has also shown that resolving capacity constraints on the live network can be very disruptive, time-consuming and expensive.

As an added bonus, the new lines could be designed to carry freight traffic during periods of low passenger demand, especially in the middle of the night.

Where will the new lines go?

The proposal, as developed by Prof Smith, is for a new line that links London with Birmingham and then Manchester. On the east side of the country London is linked by a new line that runs to Leeds via Leicester, Nottingham and Sheffield. A transverse line links Bristol, Birmingham and the Derby/Nottingham areas.

In the north an east/west line acts as a replacement for the M62, linking Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool. London, Bristol and Cardiff are also connected via the M4 corridor. Interoperability of the high-speed trains from the new routes on to existing conventional track would also cut journey times to Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle and the south west in the first instance.

With trains running at top speeds of between 300kph and 350kph, and the average start-to-stop speeds of 240kph that are currently achieved and sometimes exceeded abroad, typical journey times might be London to Manchester in 69 minutes, Leeds in 73 minutes and Birmingham in 40 minutes; or Leeds to Liverpool in 29 minutes, and Leeds to Birmingham in 40 minutes.

These plans represent the first stage of the high-speed network, a total of 1,100km of new line. A second phase linking Leeds to York, Newcastle, Edinburgh and then Glasgow would require an additional 424km of track. This would put Glasgow within three hours’ reach of London and Edinburgh at about two and a half hours.

Not only will the new lines add to the capacity of the network, but they will also greatly exceed the people-carrying capacity of motorways. The Commission for Integrated Transport estimates the capacity of a high-speed rail line is 50 per cent greater than a three-lane motorway, offering journey times of roughly a third of that of road.

Capacity can be increased further with the use of the latest signalling systems, which can manage high numbers of trains running close together, every four to five minutes. The French TGV has 1,000 seats, while the Japanese Shinkansen, also known as the Bullet, has 1,600 seats.

Where possible the new lines would follow the existing motorway network. On reaching a station stop the train would transfer on to the existing network to run into the station, and make the same use of the old line to rejoin the high-speed through line. Fast services, say from London to Leeds, would stay on the high-speed line, passing round other stops such as Nottingham and Sheffield.

Where the new trains use existing lines the layout would be updated to remove as far as possible the potential for conflicting movements, and increase the number of paths into stations. The loading gauge would also have to be enlarged to allow the operation of higher-capacity double-decker trains. The old inter-city lines would be freed for local trains and shuttle services to the main line stations.

The proposal includes a tidal power-generating barrier across the River Severn between Bristol and Cardiff to contribute electrical energy to the network and carry the high-speed line. Also linked to this could be an offshore airport. The advantage ofoffshore airports is that aircraft noise is over the sea. The reduced journey times also makes it possible to consider the mid-estuary site for the fifth London airport.

‘The high-speed rail links could make this a major national airport, quickly accessible to a large percentage of the population,’ said Prof Smith. ‘Journey times to London would be comparable with the existing Piccadilly line journey [from Heathrow to central London].’

With journey times into London slashed, new areas of the UK would become commutable, leading to a gradual easing of the burden on the notoriously congested local services into the capital.

‘The proposal would have a major positive impact on our energy, environment and transport futures,’ said Smith. ‘The system could be built in phased stages. The whole shape and balance of the country could be realigned, relieving the chronic over-concentration in the south east.’

What type of train?

Once the UK has made the decision to invest in high-speed rail, the next choice will be the type of train most suitable for the network. High-speed trains fall into two categories: locomotive-driven trains, where the power is provided by a discrete unit at the front, or a distributed-traction system, where the power is provided by units installed along the length of the train.

The French TGV is based on the locomotive system, with power cars at each end of the train providing the brute force to propel the trains forward at high speed. This system means track installation costs can be slightly reduced, as the force of the locomotive lets the train travel over tougher terrain.

In contrast the Japanese Shinkansen uses the distributed traction system, with powered bogies in which individual axles are driven by asynchronous motors. By distributing the power throughout the length of the train, less damage is done to the track itself, reducing maintenance costs.

‘Distributed power gives the train better adhesion properties and means more even and lower distribution of wheel loads, which in turn does less damage to the track, and therefore results in lower maintenance costs,’ said Smith.

This is particularly important in Japan, where Shinkansen trains run every few minutes during the day and would otherwise give the track a hefty pounding. But the lower maintenance costs would also make the system a good choice for the UK. However, opting for distributed power does not necessarily mean using Japanese trains, as there is no reason why European manufacturers could not produce trains using the traction system. Indeed, the ICE 3, the version of the German high-speed train introduced in 1999, uses distributed power.

Alstom is also developing a new design of TGV called the AGV, or Automotrice à Grande Vitesse, which uses distributed traction. The system means the AGV, which has not yet been commercialised, has a top speed of 350kph compared to 320kph for the TGV, without an overall increase in cost. The AGV is also expected to have nine per cent higher passenger capacity for the same length of train as the TGV.

What signalling system?

Passenger safety, convenience and improved timetable and train management systems can all be designed into the new network from scratch. Overall this is likely to be cheaper than attempting to apply the latest signalling and other technologies to the existing network.

Where signalling is concerned the most advanced system is the European Rail Traffic Management System, which is under development at the moment. ERTMS is an EU project aimed at creating a signalling standard that will be a cornerstone for a future high-speed trans-European rail network.

ERTMS is designed to do two things: first to ensure the safe operation of trains on the network, and second deal with the management of trains on the network to optimise capacity. ERTMS can operate at up to 500kph, and in its most sophisticated ‘moving-block’ form can allow trains to run closer together.

Three levels of ERTMS are envisaged. So far the most sophisticated, level three, has yet to be installed on a commercial network.

The first level is designed to be laid over the conventional fixed-block signalling system. Balises, or beacons, along the track transmit information about oncoming signal positions, directly to the train. At level one this system is used intermittently across the network.

Level two is a continuous system, also operating on a fixed-block basis. However, this uses a GSM-R radio link to transmit all movement authority directly to the train. Under this system trackside signals are no longer necessary.

So far ERTMS level two has been, or is being, fitted to lines in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, Italy and the Czech Republic. Although the roll-out of level two is set to gather pace during 2004, by the end of the year only 680km of European railway line will be equipped with the technology.

The Channel Tunnel Rail Link has a French system known as TVM 430. This is similar to ERTMS in that it allows smaller operational headways, but transmits signal information to the train via track beacons. The cost of installation to the first 74km of the CTRL was £56m. This figure is included in the £25m per kilometre build costs for CTRL phase one.

If possible it would be sensible to fit ERTMS level three to the new high-speed UK network. Level three enables moving-block operation and further increases the number of trains that can run on a line. It relies on a GSM-R radio link to control the speed and position of each train.

Once again, extensive amounts of trackside equipment are not necessary, which significantly cuts installation and maintenance costs. Worries of cost overruns have hampered the introduction of ERTMS to the UK’s existing lines so far. But these can be more accurately estimated when applying the system to a new line.

ERTMS levels two and three offer the possibility of more accurate and up-to-date information and train running times. This adds to passenger convenience, which would be important for attracting people back on to the network.

New designs of stations are also envisaged, which make it easier for passengers to transfer from car to train during their journeys. For example, where the high-speed lines meet the M25, drivers would park in long car parks that run the full length of the trains, and move on to the platforms using the closest in a series of entrances.

What is the cost?

Building a high-speed rail line is a major undertaking, and will not be cheap. But the Commission for Integrated Transport estimates that up to 30 per cent of infrastructure costs could be cut by building the lines in phases rather than all at once, as well as through savings from project management, planning, design and legal costs.

These elements can add up to 25 per cent of costs in the UK, compared with just three per cent on the Madrid to Lerida high-speed line in Spain. If these savings could be made, the benefits of a high-speed line could outweigh the costs by three to one, the CFIT report claims.

The track gauge for high-speed trains in the UK is likely to be the same as the standard rail network, allowing the trains to cross over to the existing lines to travel into the city centres, further reducing the cost of building the new lines.

As a result, costs for the new lines are likely to be in the range of £17.5m per kilometre, meaning that the entire network would cost around £26.7bn. This is based on the cost of £25m per kilometre for the first stage of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, less the 30 per cent savings anticipated by the Commission for Integrated Transport.

Such figures are still high when compared to the E9.3m per kilometre (£6.2m per kilometre) construction costs on the Madrid to Lerida line. But when considered in the context of the damage done to the economy through road congestion, which is estimated to be around £20bn each year, as well as the costs of pollution and to the NHS from road traffic accidents, an efficient, safe, high-speed rail service appears good value for money.

Meanwhile, the West Coast Main Line upgrade, which regularly lurches from crisis to catastrophe, has shown the difficulty and expense of undertaking improvement work on a live line. The upgrade, which was originally planned to cost £2.2bn, is now expected to cost around £9bn, and this only after plans to further improve the line to increase train speeds from 125mph to 140mph were shelved indefinitely.

‘The total cost [of a new network] is high, but so is the cost of building a new motorway, and you don’t have to build the network all at once. Also, a lot of the money will be going on manpower and things like steel, which can be made in the UK, so it is not just going down a black hole,’ said Smith.

Savings might also be made to the cost of buying rolling stock, as the French, German and Italian railways are investigating the possibility of buying a common European high-speed train, which could potentially reduce costs by 20 per cent through economies of scale.

To ensure that the network provides maximum benefit to the UK, its development should be integrated with decisions over the future spread of the population, and should also take into account energy and environmental issues. The proposed barrage across the River Severn could generate electricity from tidal power, while nuclear-generated electricity could be used to power the trains without producing carbon dioxide.

‘We have got something here that goes beyond transport, energy, the environment and town planning and development,’ said Smith. ‘If it is only thought of as a project tackling one of those issues – transport – it won’t succeed. However, if it is properly integrated with all these other issues, it will stand a much better chance of working.’

If the UK is to avoid major capacity constraints on the railways – and gridlock on the roads – a significant upgrade of the existing network is going to be needed, whether high-speed rail is chosen or not.

As Smith said: ‘The biggest issue is capacity. We simply cannot reach the capacity needed on the network without major changes, and if we are going to make those changes anyway, why not build a high-speed network?’