Examining a UK east-west HSR strategy 29 Oct 2014

Peter Kenyon, TunnelTalk
As the UK edges closer to a start on construction of the 230km first phase of High Speed Rail 2 between London and Birmingham, the Government has given the go-ahead to begin planning the project’s ‘missing link’. Already labelled HS3, the 70km link across the Pennine hills will connect the eastern and western arms of the ‘Y’ formed by its predecessor – HS2 – and enhance connectivity across the north of England and north Wales, significantly reduce journey times, and potentially free up local capacity. Peter Kenyon, for TunnelTalk, looks at some of the options, and the implications for the tunnel construction industry.

The new report by HS2 Ltd Chairman Sir David Higgins concludes that construction of a £7 billion east-west High Speed 3 link across the Pennines between Manchester and Leeds, and fast-tracking construction of the second phase HS2 connection to the hub at Crewe so that it is operational in 2027 instead of 2033, are key elements to delivering the full benefits of high speed rail to the north of England.

HS3 across the Pennines
HS3 across the Pennines

Sir David’s report, Rebalancing Britain: from HS2 towards a national transport strategy builds on recommendations made to the UK Government in his earlier report (March 2014) HS2 Plus. It also reveals that HS2 Ltd, the organisation charged by the UK Department of Transport with delivering high speed rail, “is preparing initial advice for the Government on the future potential to further extend high speed services to Scotland, which will be made public in due course.”

But it is the new HS3 east-west link, first proposed publicly by Sir David back in March, that has captured the headlines. Construction of this relatively short 70km connection, according to the HS2 Chairman, “is as important to the North as Crossrail is to London.”

The existing line – which is limited by the geographical constraint of having to cross the Pennine range of hills (the Pennines) – is currently stretched to capacity, and features train services which struggle to reach 100km/h. Although the stretch of line is only about 70km long, it acts as a major bottleneck across a far longer and heavily-populated east-west urban corridor that spans North Wales, Chester, Liverpool, Warrington, Manchester, Bradford, Leeds, York and Newcastle.

Sir David Higgins delivers his report findings
Sir David Higgins delivers his report findings

Sir David says in his report: “Network Rail has undertaken an initial study to look at how this might be done. It has examined broad options of varying scales of complexity and cost ranging from a new dedicated, high speed track, involving the construction of a tunnel underneath the Pennines, to an upgrade of the existing line using existing but unused tunnels. They also looked at upgrading the Manchester-Sheffield service in parallel to that to Leeds. The work has illustrated the need for a deeper exercise to bottom out which route between Leeds and Manchester would be best and the cost and value for money of each option. That work now needs to continue in order to turn the aspiration into a practical plan.”

On Monday the Government backed this call – and moved to commission HS2 Ltd to carry out a more detailed report on possible route, and speed, options. This is due to be completed by March next year (2015). Construction of the line itself could even be prioritised ahead of HS2 Phase 2.

At a press conference on Monday announcing the Government’s support in principle for an east-west Manchester-Leeds connection, UK Chancellor George Osborne admitted: ““Our original plan for HS2 had a big flaw – it was all about linking the north and the south and we had missed the east-west connections.”

Strictly speaking, however, this is not true. Before the Y-shaped HS2 Phase 2 connection between Birmingham and Leeds and Birmingham and Manchester was adopted, HS2 Ltd considered an S-shaped alignment that ran as a single route from Birmingham-Manchester-Leeds, across the Pennines.

Current HS2 layout
Proposed HS2 layout, and HS1

The subsequent report, entitled High level assessment of the wider network options: reverse ‘S’ and ‘Y’ network, assumed a maximum speed along the Manchester-Leeds section of 320km/h (HS2 top speed elsewhere on the alignment will be 360kph on opening, rising to 400km/h), and along dedicated track. Interestingly, this short section was tentatively costed at £5 billion, £2 billion less than the £7 billion announced this week as the probable budget for HS3, and a possible indication that the dedicated track solution is preferred over the alternative suggested by Sir David. That alternative – which is considered more likely to happen – would involve upgrades to the existing line(s), and reuse/refurbishment of disused tunnel infrastructure where possible so as to upgrade the link to “classic compatible” track capable of carrying the new high speed trains but at much lower speeds of 200km/h. This “classic compatible” solution is being utilised elsewhere along the network to enable high speed train access (at lower speeds) to York and Newcastle on the East Coast Main Line; and Liverpool, Warrington, Wigan, Preston, Carlisle, Glasgow and Edinburgh on the West Coast Main Line. Sir David’s latest report also suggests investigating connecting Stoke, Macclesfield and Stockport to the high speed network by upgrading the line connecting them so that it too is “classic compatible.”

Whichever way is chosen for the Manchester-Leeds trans-Pennine connection – dedicated true high speed track, or slower “classic compatible” upgrade – the British Prime Minister himself has said that building a slower (200km/h) HS3 will cost the same per kilometre as the 360-400km/h HS2. This is due to the need for extensive tunnelling under the Pennines, even to reach the lower speed of 200km/h. If this is truly the case, and if HS2 Ltd is to remain true to its commitment to creating a future-proof and sustainable rail network, does it not make sense to ‘go the extra few miles’, as it were, and design a route that might only have to be run a few extra kilometres further underground to support the higher speed option. Furthermore, might it not also be worth considering a more easterly than north-easterly alignment that links directly with the HS2 line between Leeds and Sheffield so as to further improve connectibility between the North West (Manchester and Liverpool conurbations) and the East Midlands (Derby, Nottingham and Leicester conurbations) as well as Leeds, Newcastle, and, ultimately, Scotland?

Current connections and the Woodhead route
Current connections and the Woodhead route

As ever, it will boil down to cost. Tunnelling under the Pennines will present geological challenges. According to the ‘Y’ and ‘S’ report, “the [Manchester-Leeds] corridor would have to contend with steeper gradients, possibly to the maximum 3.5%, in order to get across the Pennines.

“This would add to the tunnelling complexity and challenge; the topography would require a high proportion to be in tunnel. The geological make-up of the Pennines is a mix of limestone, sandstone and shale which erodes easily in wet conditions. Tunnelling in this environment would be considerable harder and more complicated and is seen as a higher risk, and expensive due to the weak and changeable geology.”

The other option, according to Sir David, is to “upgrade…existing line using existing but unused tunnels.” By this, it is presumed he means the disused north and south Woodhead tunnels, built in the 1850s, and their replacement, the adjacent BR Tunnel, completed in 1954. They sit on a rail line that used to run from Manchester to Sheffield across the northern part of the Peak District National Park, but is now disused to the east of Glossop. If this corridor is to be developed for HS3 it would appear to favour a connection midway between Leeds and Sheffield, rather than a direct connection with Leeds, but in any case the tunnels do not even belong to Network Rail, having been sold to National Grid to accommodate high voltage cables.

Even if they could be repurchased, they are, according to a 2008 report entitled Future Rail Use and the Woodhead Tunnels, barely suitable for normal speed trains let alone high speed ones.

“Given their dimensions and their current state of repair, re-use of either or both the Victorian tunnels for passenger or freight traffic appears unfeasible. The use of the Victorian tunnels as pilot bores for a new larger rail tunnel is also unlikely to be a cost effective option,” says the report. “Future re-use of the BR Tunnel for rail is a possibility but such use would have to meet modern standards. That the BR Tunnel once carried rail traffic is not material. Modern standards are far more demanding than those current when the BR Tunnel was built in the early 1950s.”

The report concludes that subject to remedial work the BR Tunnel might be suitable for high speed rail of a type similar to France’s TGV, but only unidirectionally. In any case, the tunnel currently accommodates 400kW power cables, another reason to discount it as an option. Furthermore, a whole section of alignment either side of the tunnels traverses the Peak District National Park and would likely attract significant opposition if an at-grade solution were to be advanced.

BR Tunnel under construction
BR Tunnel under construction (1953)
BR and Woodhead tunnel portals c.1954
BR and Woodhead tunnel portals c.1954

So what does all this mean? When Sir David says that an east-west connection is “as important to the North as Crossrail is to London” it seems counterintuitive to believe that reusing existing tunnels and old lines – Victorian or otherwise – is seriously being considered. Why spend £50 billion developing 560km of 360-400kph high speed rail infrastructure and then cut corners (and costs) for the all-important missing 70km link?

It is worth considering here that in Germany, the 250km/h 60km-long Wendlingen-Ulm section of the Stuttgart-21 high speed rail project is not dissimilar to the trans-Penine route in the north of the UK in terms of the terrain challenges that it presents. Just over half the undulating route is being completed through twin running tunnels, and, even allowing for the project going over budget, the final cost will come in considerably less than the £7 billion being suggested for HS3. UK rail planners should be mindful that in Germany 15km of twin running alignment between Wendlingen and Ulm are being delivered by Porr and Strabag subsidiary Ed Zublin for a total cost of just €885 million.


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