Posted 20th April 2020 | 11 Comments

Monday essay: could the Great Central be used for HS2?

Construction of HS2 is going ahead, after the Government authorised the issuing of Notices to Proceed to the main contractors for Phase 1 between London and Birmingham. But alternatives to the route, or details of it, are still being urged by some transport campaigners. Sim Harris considers the possibilities offered by the trackbed of the former Great Central Railway.

ONE frequently heard story about alternatives for HS2 concerns the Great Central Railway, the brainchild of Sir Edward Watkin (1819-1901). The GCR (‘the London Extension’ of the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway) was opened on 9 March 1899, but Sir Edward had even greater ambitions. He had wanted to extend his railway across the English Channel.

The first test shafts for a Channel Tunnel were unsuccessful, but digging restarted in 1880 and some work was also done on the French side. By late 1882 the English trial bore from Dover was almost 2km long.

Widespread objections to what was seen as a threat to national security (even Queen Victoria is said to have been doubtful) ensured failure. After years of debate and mounting official concern about the possibilities of invasion the scheme was finally killed in 1898, when the High Court ordered the South Eastern Railway and the associated Channel Tunnel Company to stop boring beneath the sea bed.

It is frequently alleged that the Great Central Railway was built to ‘continental loading gauge’ so that international trains coming through the Channel Tunnel would have been able to use Watkin’s new main line, and this claim is also used to bolster a further myth that a reopened Great Central would be a workable (and cheaper) substitute for HS2. Although the GCR was well-engineered, neither of these claims bear close examination.

There was no such thing as an agreed ‘continental’ gauge until 1912, when a convention held in Bern confirmed some specifications. This agreement gave birth to the ‘Bern(e) Gauge’ in 1914, which is now a series of UIC standards. But there is no shortage of books and internet documents (including research for a master’s degree) maintaining that structures on the GCR were built to the ‘Berne gauge’. As the Bern agreement was only signed 13 years after the GCR had opened, this would have been a remarkable example of foresight.

Unfortunately for the Great Central/Channel Tunnel enthusiasts, Channel Tunnel trains would also have needed to be routed via the South Eastern Railway where the structure gauge was on the miserly side, even by British standards.

In any case, the GCR’s dimensions were smaller than those of the future Berne Gauge. The Berne loading gauge width is usually accepted to be 3.15m, while the Great Central was built to a width of 2.82m. The Berne Gauge maximum height was 4.28m, while the GCR equivalent was 4.09m.

In other words, there was nothing very exceptional about the dimensions of the GCR. Although its dimensions were comparatively generous when compared with some of the older British railways, this was probably to comply with revised Board of Trade regulations, and most trains from continental countries would still have been too large for the line. One account of the Great Central suggests that two bridges were built to ‘unusual dimensions’ to allow for future widening if Channel Tunnel trains ever arrived. This would have been an early example of what is now known as ‘passive provision’, but it was never needed.

In any case, by the time the Great Central was opened Watkin’s Channel Tunnel dream was dead. Trains from continental Europe would never run along the main line from Marylebone to the Midlands.

As for using the trackbed of the Great Central for HS2 now, this would be a very poor second best. HS2 is to be built to a true international structure gauge, known as UIC ‘GC’. This allows a rolling stock height of 4.70m, compared with the usual British maximum of 3.91m. UIC GC trains are also wider, at 3.29m (the British equivalent is 2.82m). The platform profiles are different as well.

The Great Central falls well short of the requirements of UIC GC. The surviving bridges and tunnels would have to be expensively enlarged, while a further height allowance would be needed for the OHLE. Some structures have been demolished and would have to be replaced. Even the width of the formation (where it still exists) would not be anything like enough, because High Speed lines typically measure five metres between the centres of parallel tracks, while the distance between the fences on each side can be as much as 22m.

Neither do the fans of the Great Central explain what would be done in towns like Brackley and Rugby, where the formation has disappeared entirely under later urban development. New avoiding lines – completely new stretches – would presumably be needed.

Sir Edward Watkin can hardly be blamed for not planning a Victorian steam railway with a likely maximum speed of 75-80mph (120-128km/h) to the dimensions of HS1 or HS2, but the Great Central was not the equivalent – in any way – of a modern High Speed line.

This is a revised and updated version of analysis first published in the March print edition of Railnews, RN277. Copies of the current or recent editions can be obtained by calling 01438 281200 from UK numbers or +44 (0)1438 281200 internationally, and selecting Option 2.

Reader Comments:

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

  • NS, Manchester

    Is this not half an argument? HS2 would require extensive re-modelling of scores of bridges and crossings on both the road and rail network so dismissing the GCR for this reason whilst ignoring what is planned makes no sense. To say that recent building over the trackbed at Brackley & Rugby presents problems may well be true, but if the solution to that problem would be to create new track, then what is HS2 if not the same problem but only a bigger scale? Instead of looking at only the problems of the GCR whilst ignoring its opportunities AND the problems of HS2, a more sophisticated approach to this question would be to ask is adapting the GCR to meet the needs of the WCML a better solution than building HS2?

  • Melvyn Windebank, Canvey Island, Essex

    It's a pity the Paddington option was discussed more when The Greengauge Group first proposed HS2 as the land next to Paddington Station where Paddington Central development has been built could have been used as a terminal station and using Paddington would have removed the need for Old Oak Common Station on HS2. Whether a different station where HS2 meets WCML would be needed would depend on route from Paddington.

    Given the GCR ran through the same area as HS2 in The Chilterns the argument is just about opposing HS2 given similar works would be needed to bring GCR route up to modern standards with trees that have grown having to be removed and possibly even more trees than HS2 will require!

    An upgrade to Chiltern Railways would have been a better way of opposing HS2 in the beginning but STOP HS2 chose total opposition without ant alternative to dealing with overcrowding on railway which is about lack of paths for more trains .

    It's noticeable that while HS2 gains same old anti arguments the East to West Rail project that also runs through the Chilterns and crosses HS2 at Calvert ( where recent report suggested a interchange station !) is OK despite need to remove trees that have grown around old tracks!

  • david c smith, Bletchley

    If the question is" could the ex Great Central be used as part of HS2?", then the answer seems a pretty clear "No!"

    If the question is" could the ex Great Central be of use as part of a more general conventional speed capacity boost?", then "Quite likely".

    But this whole discussion , along with the need for extra capacity, may well become redundant due to Coronavirus and its future legacy. Who knows?

  • Chris Jones-Bridger, Buckley, Flintshire

    A timely reminder why the existing GC alignment north of Aylesbury was discounted as providing a 'ready made' route for HS2. After the past decade spent consulting, legislating and designing HS2 the forthcoming decade can now see it's ambitions being achieved enabling a dedicated purpose built inter city route to service the long distance services giving the traditional routes the space to breath & serve the communities they directly pass through.

    For the romantics who still dream of the GC London Extension to rise from the ashes let us recall the hard facts behind it's rise & fall. Had it not been for the lack of cooperative spirit & the egos of the period the need for the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway to construct it's own route may have never arisen if existing contractual arrangements with other railway companies hadn't soured. Let it also be recalled that the principle revenue source was through freight movement with through passenger traffic being of secondary importance. For the pre Grouping railway companies the Edwardian era was the high point of the 20th century. Thereafter their fortunes, or lack there of, were dictated by the disruption of the world wars & the interwar depression.

    In the Nationalised era of the 1950's several factors contributed to the decline of the GC's fortunes:-

    The pooling of the private owner coal wagon fleet during WW2 had enabled progressively more efficient distribution and use of the fleet resulting in reduced unproductive empty mileage and marshalling.

    The 1950's Clean Air Acts and the later availability of North Sea Gas dramatically reduced the demand for coal for domestic use & gas production. Also the elimination of steam traction saw BR's demand for coal progressively decline.

    The new CEGB base load coal fired power stations were co-located with the coal fields favouring Aire & Trent Valley sites.

    Domestic production of iron ore was drying up being replaced by imported ore.

    The deteriorating condition of BR's finances were also dictating where economies could be made & even before Beeching duplicate routes were under scrutiny. That the GC London Extension became a casualty was a stark reminder of the rapidly changing conditions BR's freight business was facing in an increasingly competitive age. The core north/south coal & mineral workings that had been bread & butter to the GC were simply drying up. The investment that had been made in supporting block train & MGR working was better deployed on fewer core routes where a more balanced traffic portfolio could support the overhead costs.

    Fortunately and despite subsequent scares the suburban routes from Marylebone have lived to see better times and now form the core of Chiltern's successful operation. For those still flying kites that parts of these routes can substitute for part of HS2's alignment forget it. They have an important enough role to play for the communities they serve & besides the cost of sharing with high speed rail would be counter productive never mind highly disruptive to construct.

  • Jez Milton, Manchester

    Surely the main problem with a GC based "alternative" to HS2, is that it would do precisely nothing to relieve the busiest mixed traffic railway in Britain: Coventry to Bham?

  • bob, bobtown

    [Comment deleted by moderator as originating email address is false.]

  • Chris Kyaw, Barnsley

    Nothing too do with the GC but, now that HS2 Phase 2 is to be cut-back and slowed down, has anyone noticed that there is a four-track formation from Mexborough to Altofts that is lying unused? It is, of course, the old North Midland Railway with its high embankments, deep cuttings and negligible gradients. The wide trackbed would allow for the easing of the already-sweeping curves if necessary.

    From Altofts onward a new route would be needed at least as far as Rothwell Haigh. From there maybe room could be made into Leeds by removing sidings to the east of the line and shifting conventional track to the west of the formation.

    Its use could avoid much of the expense of land acquisition, compulsory purchase etc.

  • david c smith, Bletchley

    Just to respond. I did a rough costing exercise a year or so ago, too. It seemed the line north of Calvert to the proposed junction south of Nuneaton could be done for £4bn,, whilst south of Calvert, where infrastructure is already present and in use, a further £ 2bn.for upgrades. Any terminal costs , for the three possibles listed in my previous contribution are more difficult to assess, but the advent of Crossrail could free platform capacity at Paddington, and/or at Marylebone, if existing services were to be displaced. Euston, with its 16 platforms could have taken more, and this still applies after its partial rebuild.

    If this NGC were to be a dedicated freight line, it could access at least three of the freight facilities in the Capital.

    The line north of Calvert should not be expensive, given that work would not need to be constantly interrupted by existing train traffic.( An ex BR civil engineer told me this was their biggest problem and cost inflater).

  • Andy, Leeds

    A well-timed article. As well as the reasons cited above, there are two further reasons why the great central would not be suitable:

    1. The southern part of the great central still exists and is very busy with Chiltern trains services.
    2. There is no station capacity at Marylebone.

    In other words, you would need to build a new line through London, and a new station terminal, on other words it would have to do the same as the most expensive bits of HS2.

  • Chris Neville-Smith, Durham

    The one good thing about the GCR idea was that is actually provides extra tracks, something most HS2 antis claimed isn't needed even though it obviously is.

    However, I once did a quick calculation of what this might cost based on known price tags, and it came to round about £11bn, inflated by a large part by four-tracking the Chiltern Line south of its junction with the GCR. True, that is still markedly less than the current estimated cost of HS2 Phase 1, but much of the cost escalation for HS2 is building stations in city centres. My calculation made the assumption that you could just run into Paddington and New Street (in line with the rail package 2-5 models) - it now looks like that's not an option. Expand these stations and you've just reinstated the most important part of HS2.

    I'm not ruling out the possibility this might have been more cost-effective, but the problem is the vast majority of people suggesting these ideas kept switching from one alternative scheme to another without attempting to address the problems in any of them. I'm not saying everyone was like that, but the few people who tried to come up with workable solutions were drowned out by the usual suspects screaming "How much are they paying you?"

  • david c smith, Bletchley

    Yes, I'm sure a "New Great Central" could not support serious high speed ( 140+ mph ). This assumes, though, that the need for VHS lies along this axis. The need for VHS does not neccesarily always coincide with the need for capacity enhancement !

    B'ham, Manchester and Leeds are all already well within day - return range of London and a VHS line (as per the current HS2) will only give quite limited extra benefit, albeit at very high per- mile cost, passing through already highly developed, densely populated country. If VHS is needed, a better bet might be to take an East Coast alignment, so as to give new day - return opportunities between the Capital and Teesside/ Tyneside/ Edinburgh / Glasgow. Distances involved would also be newly competitive with aviation.Also, Leeds / Bradford would get some benefit as "spin off". Furthermore, construction costs would be cheaper on this alignment.

    Given the above, the need for more capacity on the southern part of the WCML, freed from the need for VHS, could well be fulfilled by a rebuild of a New Great Central .At its northern end, it would need a new stretch from north of Catesby tunnel to a new junction south of Nuneaton , passing to the west of Rugby.
    At the London end, there are three possible lines:-
    a/ via Aylesbury to Marylebone
    b/ via the Grendon - Ashenden link to Paddington
    c/ via a newbuild Tring - north of Aylesbury, from Euston.
    Rembering here that when Crossrail opens (?), there will be new availability of terminal platform capacity.

    Finally , a( conventional speed) NGC line could cater for extra InterCity paths, or, if needs be, could be used as a dedicated freight line..