Posted 20th September 2013 | 14 Comments

Rail must end Victorian legacy -- Network Rail chief

HS1 in Kent

David Higgins said that while passenger numbers had doubled there had been no new tracks put down 'except one to France'.

NETWORK RAIL must catch up on a whole generation of under-spending on the country’s rail network, which is why £37 billion is now planned to be spent between 2014 and 2019, according to chief executive David Higgins.

“Everything is being done 20 years late. Like the water industry, the railways have been dining out on the legacy of Victorian investment,” he said, warning that similar critical issues also face the aviation and power industries.

David Higgins was speaking at the opening of a conference in Birmingham on 'HS2 – the wider network, the wider benefits.'

Emphasizing 'a substantial mismatch between supply and demand' he said that while passenger numbers had doubled there had been no new tracks put down – 'except one to France'.

He added: “Thameslink and Crossrail are great – but there is no new heavy rail above ground at all. The tunnels just join up existing lines.

“As you put more and more trains on the same tracks you run out of capacity, which is why very regrettably we had to turn down Virgin’s plans to run extra trains to Shrewsbury and to Blackpool,” he said.

Nevertheless, he said in coming years Network Rail will continue work to lengthen trains, to lengthen platforms and to lengthen passing loops for freight trains.

“During the building of HS2 we will spend more money on improving and enhancing the present network than will be spent on HS2,” he forecast.

But in his first substantial public speech about HS2, David Higgins – who is standing down next spring – declared his passionate support for the project. “If we don’t build it now, we will miss out for another 50 years.

Speaking of the need to relieve demand on the West Coast Main Line, and to rebuild its London terminus, he said that by the time the HS2 'Y' network is completed, Euston would be approaching 70 years of age.  Already it was coping with twice the number of trains and passengers it was designed for, and in the next 10 years it was expected passenger numbers would grow by a further 20 per cent.

Referring to the nearby redevelopments of St Pancras and King's Cross stations, David Higgins said: “It is crazy to oppose HS2 going into Euston and the economic benefits it will provide.", adding that there must be a perspective of what is needed in 20 years' time to get the infrastructure right. He also disclosed that Network Rail has set up a study group with the London Borough of Camden, which has been opposing the scheme on the grounds that it would cause considerable disruption and upheaval in the borough.

He was also highly critical of any alternative proposals that would continue to see express, commuter and local passenger trains, plus freight services, all using the same route.

He said: "No one else is the western world, except the USA, or in Asia would dream of running the M1 up the High Street – they separate the different types of trains out and run them on separate tracks.

"But here we have all these different train types on the same tracks and all they do is trash the railway line."

And referring to the WCML’s Victorian legacy, he pointed out that it was now over 170 years old (the 175th anniversary of the London & Birmingham Railway opening was reached on 17 September).

He said all the structures and the route alignments were over 170 years old, many overhead electrification gantries were now 50 years old. Much of the signalling dated well back into the 20th century and its average age was around 40 years.

The West Coast Main Line has all the problems of living in a Victorian house,” he warned.

Meanwhile, dismissing recent media speculation, Shadow Transport Minister Lilian Greenwood, MP for Nottingham South, reaffirmed to the conference Labour's full support for HS2: "We are absolutely committed, but we must continue to bear down on the budget and on costs," she said.

Reader Comments:

Views expressed in submitted comments are that of the author, and not necessarily shared by Railnews.

  • John Gaughan, Hanover, PA. USA

    Gloucester is a prime example of Victorian era railway stations. Old, dirty
    disfunctional. It has not changed much from my trainspotting days of the 1950's. I am a frequent traveller in the UK using BritRail Pass, 28 trips
    over the last 55 years. I also preferred British Rail to the franchises. More
    frequent service and less cancellations. Cheer up, things will be worse tomorrow.

    (This is not a plea in favour of private operators, but are you sure about that more frequent service in BR days? In most cases, it is the other way round, sometimes spectacularly so (three trains an hour London-Manchester, some Devon and Cornwall branches now offering 30min headways, etc.). Also, doesn't the present Gloucester date from the later 1970s? The old Gloucester stations, including the former Eastgate, were demolished around that time.--Ed.)

  • Chris Neville-Smith, Durham, England

    "Liverpool, Glasgow and Newcastle have such metros which are underground in their centres, but of course are left off HS2."

    Not correct. HS2 trains will run to these destinations, from day one in the case of Liverpool and Glasgow.

    Don't listen to antis who tell you that you can't run a HS train into a city without a dedicated high-speed line. They are making it up.

  • John, London

    The HS2 bosses are detached from reality. Firstly, in its current form of only serving FOUR cities directly, essential Liverpool is omitted. Liverpool is the "only" deep water port on that coast.
    The big question ......Is HS2 going to succeed in its current form?

    The flaw is having a HS2 station per region, not one in each major city. HS2 stations require the surrounding populations to have simple and easy and fast access to maximize usage, that means being served directly by rapid-transit metros. Of the four HS2 cities only London has such a transport network. Manchester has street trollycars and Leeds and Birmingham buses. Liverpool, Glasgow and Newcastle have such metros which are underground in their centres, but of course are left off HS2. How clever. HS2 will only benefit the cities it serves, not the regions these cities are in.

  • A Alan, Winchester

    Just floating an idea as to whether Crossrail 3 between Euston and Waterloo maybe an answer. ? Presently both stations are or approaching capacity so rather than building Crossrail 2 first go for the third option. This would help solve capacity problems at both stations. With plans already in place to electrify part of the SWML to overhead 25KV plus many similarities between the rolling stock SWT and LM both use Desiro units. A 24tph route would free up terminal space at both stations for other services and open up route options i.e. Southampton - Northampton, Bournemouth - Milton Keynes, Portsmouth - Birmingham. It cold also relieve pressure on the Northern Line. A tunnel entrance north of Wimbledon with stations at Clapham, Vauxhall, Waterloo, Tottenham Court Road, Euston then WCML. With Crossrail scheduled to finish on 2018 maybe this is an ideal time to use the tunneling and other skills learnt on Crossrail 1 on the next big project rather than demobilising then mobilising the labour necessary.

  • Adam, Birmingham

    For anyone to suggest that "HS2 is a kneejerk reaction to a problem which doesn't exist" and to suggest that HS2 will do nothing for freight is just factually incorrect.

    The benefits of HS2 to commuters and freight are plain to see for anyone who attempts to understand. Also HS2 does not come at a price that sees classic lines starved of money which is another non fact. Any improvements on the WCML, ECML, MML, GWML and Chiltern Line should be (and will be) implemented regardless of HS2 and CP5 & CP6 (and beyond) prove that is the case where a lot of money is still being spent on improving the classic lines

  • Chris Neville-Smith, Durham, England

    John Barnsden, I want to take issue with a few points:

    "HS2 is a kneejerk reaction to a problem which doesn't exist"

    Crowding on the commuter services on the West Coast Main Line currently go up to 162%, and if passenger growth continues the way it does it's set to get much, much worse. Are you denying this problem exists, or are you denying it's a problem?

    "We already have five or six routes which could be upgraded to reach 225kph."

    Maybe, but an increase in a top speed of 25 km/h will save a few minutes at the most, and with very few exceptions, can only be achieved by scrapping regional services. (Increasing differences in speeds on the same line messes up capacity.)

    "Where we should be concentrating is freight movements and HS2 will do nothing for that."

    Um, yes it does. Some of the freed capacity will go towards more regional passenger services on the WCML, and some of it will go towards freight.

    "HS2 also does nothing for the local rail commuter"

    Network Rail says otherwise. If you look at their sheets on capacity benefits for intermediate stations along the WCML, you'll see that they intend to increase services, with faster journey times and less crowding. Unless you wish to suggest Network Rail is lying, that claim falls down.

    "who may in fact lose out if the WCML reverts to fast services omitting local stations and two tracks are given over to freight (as DB Schenker are asking)."

    But they're not going to do that, are they? (Still, if, as you claim, there's loads of easy ways to increase freight capacity, don't you think DB Schenker would be suggesting those things instead?)

    "but this ignores the fact that the last upgrade did not involve the busiest section between Rugby and London"

    That's because everything that can be upgraded between Rugby and London has been upgraded, except for the Ledburn Flyover which delivers very little benefit for a lot of disruption.

    "it might help a few businessmen get to Birmingham 10 minutes quicker."

    Oh dear, that is incorrect on so many levels. It's not 10 minutes (it's 38), it's not just Birmingham (it's at least 15 destinations), it's not just businessmen (look at the passengers on ANY high-speed service anywhere and you'll see how wrong that is), and it's not just speed (it's more trains - speed is just a bonus).

  • Lee, Manchester

    I can appreciate the argument for HS2 to release capacity on the WCML, but when the route to Birmingham opens, the corresponding sections of the WCML should be refurbished/realigned etc. However that will cost a lot of money and as history has shown, successive governments of various political beliefs have been less than keen to 'foot the bill' themselves. More commonly it has been a successive government or the private sector that has paid for commited schemes When improvements have been implemented there is always the 'Best Value for Money' caveat, which ususally translates as 'cheapest' or downgraded option. Again, look at the WCML upgrade which was supposed to deliver 140mph running speeds and yet actuall delivered 125mph speeds - eventually and at a much increased cost.

    Yes we are dining out on Victorian investment, but most of the upgrades and 'new' rail infrastructure schemes of recent times simply wouldn't have happened if it weren't for the Victorians creating the rouites in the first place.

  • John Barnsden, Woodford Halse

    Spot on Tony. HS2 is a kneejerk reaction to a problem which doesn't exist and appeals to politicians because of its grand nature and the idea that the UK needs to do what certain other European countries have done.

    The country does not need another north-south line devoted exclusively to passenger traffic. We already have five or six routes which could be upgraded to reach 225kph. Where we should be concentrating is freight movements and HS2 will do nothing for that. HS2 also does nothing for the local rail commuter who may in fact lose out if the WCML reverts to fast services omitting local stations and two tracks are given over to freight (as DB Schenker are asking).

    Yes, we've all heard the spiel that the WCML is or will be up to capacity but this ignores the fact that the last upgrade did not involve the busiest section between Rugby and London. Likewise, the ECML can be four tracked at Welwyn as can the Chiltern between Northolt and . Existing freight on the WCML can also be pathed through the GN/GE and Felixstowe/Nuneaton which have been recently upgraded.

    All this without even mentioning the New North Main Line which is criminally underused, plus the possibility of linking Britain's largest distribution centre (Magna Park) with the East-West line via a reinstated Great Central Main Line from Rugby to Claydon LNE junction which could also serve Brackley and Lutterworth. Britain has to think big and not just ape the latest fad because it might help a few businessmen get to Birmingham 10 minutes quicker.

  • Tony Pearce, Reading

    The improvements at Reading, which I observe every day, do not appear to be creating any more paths for freight trains especially in the 4 track section from Didcot to Tilehurst which I believe is 'full'. Freight trains rumble through all night and day. The improvements at Reading should stop delays to Passenger trains and Freight trains because they cross each others paths just to the west of Reading. Readings re-building is supported 100% by Reading residents who come out in crowds on even on Christmas Day to see the latest bridge rolled into place. Contrast that to the local support HS2 doesn't have. I often am delaying by trains broken down (usually freight trains) either between Oxford and Didcot or Basingstoke to Southampton. This is because the track is only double with few passing loops. I asked a group of my children and their friends (aged in the 20 and 30s) did they want HS2. We don't want faster trains, they laughed, we want faster broadband. And there is a great deal of truth in that.

  • jbzoom, Guildford

    Tony, you're missing the point. because of decades of underinvestment, HS2 and many of the investments you would like are both necessary. New signalling, 25,000 volt electrification, the East-West railway from Bedford and Milton Keynes to Oxford, etc are all funded and the rebuilding of the tracks in and around Reading station will allow more Southampton freight traffic to reach the rest of the country by train. HS2 is only a start - it will shift up to 20,000 passengers an hour each way off the West Coast mainline and make more commuter paths available into London and more freight paths beyond the commuter belt. It will also put Birmingham rather than London at the centre of the High Speed Network, with potential future extensions to Cardiff, Bristol and even Southampton. Similarly the Northern arms will eventually extend to Carlisle, Newcastle and then Scotland. Nobody has yet published a "Plan B" that withstands scrutiny.

  • Peter Tomlinson, Bristol

    We have a late Victorian Civil Service. At long last it is starting to update itself. The Blair govt started planning that update but pulled back at the start of 2005. The Coalition govt picked up the baton the instant that they took over, and in May this year got over a major hurdle, but its a long way to the terminus. Whitehall now needs to learn from Scotland and from a few nearby EU countries, learn about how to put the right skills in the right places - and then do it PDQ.

  • Christopher Williams, Newport

    I would love to be able to travel by train to such exotic places as Brecon and Builth Wells by train. This was once possible. South and North Wales should be connected by a more direct rail link. I do not want an H.S. Wales line built just an ordinary railway. I think that sometimes slower is better. I also think that the Wye Valley Railway should be re-built. Have you tried to drive through Tintern on a sunny day? I know what some people will say. It will cost too much money or there is not enough public support for it. We must get people out of their cars. Maybe these two railways could be built using the metre gauge? If it will be cheaper?

  • Melvyn Windebank, Canvey Island, Essex

    David HiggIns is right especially when you think of the billions spent on the WCML upgrade and yet this money largely replaced existing tracks without looking at whether better alignments or new bridges/ tunnels by which I mean new ones on a new alignment and not just replacement of existing structures.

    Of course the work at London Bridge shows how difficult it is to install extra tracks in urban areas but if we want to remove bottlenecks then more of this type of work will be needed it won't be popular but trains stuck at red signals waiting for paths are not popular either!

    Perhaps its time to unearth Abercrombies wartime report which talked of putting line Crossrail style underground and looked at for example linking London Bridge (Southern) to Waterloo (South Western) by a tunnel with Crossrail type stations underground with route running to Clapham Junction thus linking the railways together . A similar tunnel linking Euston to Victoria is now being looked at as Crossrail 2 !

  • Tony Pearce, Reading

    We all know the problems. Back in the 1840s we were the first country to build railways and we built them to a loading gauge which is rather small. This means that all tunnels and bridges can't be widened except at enormous cost. Worse than that was the way that railwyas just 'punched' their way through housing into London with the result we all know that many bedrooms and bathrooms are only feet away from the tracks in the London area. And of course London is the central part of our Rail system. The growth in rail usage has also been London led. I agree that we need to re-think what we want from our Railways and to ask whether they are in the right place, but it would seem that they know the answer (HS2) and are trying to fit everything to come to that answer. Much of what really needs doing is being ignored. For example the A34 is the dual-carriage way linking the North with the Port of Soutampton via M3 and M40. It is mostly built on the alignment of the old Didcot to Winchester railway line and is full day in, day out with Container lorries. Although improvements at Reading might help Container trains, they suffer from over-crowding on the double track all the way through Oxford and then from Reading to Basingstoke and Eastleigh. We need a new alignment there beause the M3 is full. Is this feasible ? I can think of numerous other examples. I am appalled at the run-down nature of the railways in Bristol, Gloucester and Birmingham. They are not 21st Century. Will HS2 help them, - of course not. The country needs a transport plan. Where is air travel going to be expanded ? What are the main Freight routes ? Which Motorways are full and need to be offered a Rail alternative ? So many questions but only one answer - HS2.