The idea of running 320km/h Eurostar trains along motorway central reservations seems bizarre. But it is a realistic proposition and could cut the journey time between London and Birmingham to half an hour, according to proposals put forward by the John Moores’ School of the Built Environment.
The scheme, presented as an alternative to upgrading the West Coast Main Line, would ultimately allow Eurostar trains to run along the west coast, from the Channel Tunnel link at London St Pancras to Birmingham and Manchester, and ultimately on to Glasgow.
Professor Lewis Lesley, who leads the 40-strong John Moores research team, believes the cost of upgrading the 19th century WCML will exceed that of building a new railway. His proposed high-speed rail link would use existing technology to send Eurostar trains along the central reservations of the M1, M6 and A74, relegating the WCML to regional and freight traffic.
Stations would be built at a number of existing service areas, enabling travellers to drive from home to the motorway before switching to the trains for the remainder of their journey. It is suggested that link lines would also be built into high-population areas such as Birmingham.
Part of the proposed scheme, a link from Manchester Airport through Warrington to Liverpool Airport, has already been studied, says Lesley. This link would cut travelling time between the two airports to under 15 minutes.
However, while the project may be technically feasible, experts have raised a number of objections. Critics were quick to note the safety implications of such a scheme, with the AA suggesting that in the event of a derailment the train had nowhere to go but into traffic.
Lesley counters that road-rail schemes like this already exist in Germany and Holland where they have no record of such accidents.
Felix Schmidt, senior lecturer in railway systems engineering at Sheffield University’s Advanced Rail Research Centre, backs Lesley in considering derailment as extremely unlikely. Conversely, Schmidt believes the main problem is that of cars crossing the central reservation barriers and landing in the path of a train, especially vehicles with a high centre of gravity.
But Lesley says this could be prevented by new barrier designs. The New Zealand concrete barrier has a concave slope at its base, designed to transfer kinetic energy into gravitational potential energy and put the vehicle back on course. If that fails, a concrete wall surmounted by a steel barrier prevents vehicles from crashing through or rolling over.
Lesley agrees with another concern of Schmidt’s, that such a scheme would complicate motorway maintenance, especially where a contraflow is required. He does not believe the problem is critical; separating traffic at motorway junctions could be one solution.
Lesley adds that an electrified line along the centre of the motorway would benefit drivers by allowing the easy and cheap provision of full motorway lighting, a scheme that has been in abeyance for some time.
Overall, Lesley is keen to stress that the scheme does not rely on new and problematic technology, such as Maglev or tilting trains. Although the geometry of motorways is a possible problem, with the radius of horizontal curves designed for speeds well under 200mph, this would be catered for by using increased superelevation.
This means the line could use Eurostar trains rather than expensive, specially-designed tilting trains.
Schmidt, however, points out that trains would have to negotiate these more highly banked curves at a minimum speed to prevent passengers getting the impression of the train being about to fall inwards. The track would have to be laid in a concrete bed to resist the high cornering forces, so it would have to be laid out more precisely.
And because concrete, unlike a conventional ballast bed, is not elastic, there is a danger of the track developing uneveness or corrugations on the surface.
The next step is to examine what would be needed to convert the motorways and service areas for the high-speed line. While researchers have found that most stretches of motorway have enough space for a twin-track railway, there are areas where the central reservation would need to be widened.
Proposed stations at service areas would need extra space for platforms. Lesley says this should be obtained at the expense of road surface, saying ‘research has shown that rail lanes on motorways have greater capacity than vehicle lanes’.
Lesley intends to use services at Wolverhampton as a basis for a feasibility study into adapting service areas for stations.
The long-term success of the research project will depend on Government funding, following last month’s presentation to the secretary for transport John Prescott.
Lesley, who was nominated for the 1997 German Rail Award in Innovative Railway Research, hopes the Government’s recent consultation document on integrated transport policy will herald increased support for new transport systems.
But even though most of the technical problems seem solvable, there are criticisms on purely transport grounds. Schmidt says that, like air travel, the proposal would have ‘poor access to central areas’.
Stephen Joseph, director of Transport 2000, says: ‘High speed is not the only issue and is not the priority in this case. The problem is that of insufficient capacity. The money needs to be spent on extra lines and platforms around Birmingham.’