Biting the British Bullet

20 September 2007 (Last Updated September 20th, 2007 18:30)

Cost, debate and technology have worked together to delay high-speed progress in Britain. However, capacity and service levels are now starting to be key arguments to put projects back on the track. Howard Johnston and Neil Pulling take a ride through the UK's high-speed history to pinpoint where its future might lie.

Biting the British Bullet

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Britain had one of the most exciting inter-city schedules anywhere in the world. Only Japan could seriously rival Britain for the sheer number of trains operated at 200km/h (124mph), then regarded as the threshold for high-speed operation.

Since then, that threshold has risen substantially, to the point where 250km/h is considered the minimum for rail to compete effectively with air. It's a threshold which Britain has conspicuously failed to achieve – except on the line linking London with the Channel Tunnel – despite three separate opportunities to get close.

Yet things are beginning to change in Britain, with the introduction of a fleet of 225km/h (140mph) EMUs from Hitachi in the next couple of years, and the long-term Intercity Express Programme (IEP), which is expected to replace a number of long-distance fleets.

But for now, the maximum speed operated on domestic services remains at 200km/h – a mark reached almost 30 years ago.

Development of high-speed rail in Britain is handicapped by a high population density, comprehensive road and air links and restrictive planning rules which make developing any major project extremely time-consuming and expensive.

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

Britain's first missed opportunity for high-speed operation was the 248km/h advanced passenger train (APT) which saw extensive development in the 1970s and 1980s. This tilting train used cutting-edge technology and was designed to cut journey times on the congested and heavily used West Coast Main Line (WCML) from London to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow.

When the trains worked they proved highly capable, setting a British rail speed record of 260km/h (162mph) that stood for more than 20 years. However, the amount of technology in the trains proved its downfall, with niggling problems becoming too difficult to resolve.

"250km/h is considered the minimum for rail to compete effectively with air."

The APT was a project designed to make the most of existing infrastructure, and to stop within existing signalling sections. Advanced hydro-pneumatic braking gave consistent problems, as did the then revolutionary tilt system and today it seems little could have been done to iron out these issues. The project was dropped in the mid-1980s and a new series of 175km/h (109mph) locomotives were ordered for the WCML instead.

Failure of the APT project nonetheless represented a lesson learned, and when confirmation of a programme to electrify the East Coast Main Line was announced a new generation of 225km/h (140mph) locomotives and coaches was designed. Advances in traction technology meant that whereas the APT needed two power cars in the middle of the train the Intercity 225 could rely on a single 4.7MW Class 91 electric locomotive operating in push-pull mode.

While electrification of the East Coast Main Line continued in parallel with development of the Intercity 225, it was quickly decided not to fit the new trains for tilt operation, though they were designed with provision for the equipment to be retro-fitted. Tests at the design speed of 225km/h were undertaken with great success but the need to alter signalling on the entire 628km (390-mile) route proved too costly and the new trains were restricted to the 200km/h at which the diesel high-speed trains already operated.

PENDOLINO PROBLEMS

Signalling was also behind the most recent failed attempt to operate domestic services at more than 200km/h. Again, it was on the WCML, where passenger franchise Virgin West Coast planned to replace its 175km/h services with 225km/h Pendolino tilting Alstom-built EMUs.

The operation hinged on a controversial deal signed with the then track authority, Railtrack, in 1995 to fit radio-based moving block system signalling, felt to be the only way in which sufficient line capacity to justify 225km/h operation could be generated. But there was a problem: the technology had yet to be deployed at these speeds anywhere in the world.

"For now, the maximum speed operated on domestic services remains at 200km/h."

As well as problems developing the technology – which would have been the first installation of European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) level 3 anywhere in the world – there were also question marks about who would pay for fitting on-board equipment to trains used by other operators. With at least nine other WCML freight and passenger operators this proved to be a difficult issue which was never completely resolved.

In the end, the development of the signalling system proved impossible in the timescale agreed and, under the aegis of the Strategic Rail Authority, was dropped in 1999. Thankfully for Virgin West Coast, the high-performance levels of the Pendolinos and line-speed improvements undertaken on the WCML (with a new maximum speed of 200km/h and extensive tilt operation) meant the impact of the failure to implement 225km/h operation has been largely mitigated.

A NEW DAWN?

The opening of section 1 of Channel Tunnel Rail Link in 2003 brought the first scheduled high-speed rail operation in Britain. Eurostar, which for long had operated trains on its British leg at a maximum speed of just 160km/h (99.4mph), compared with 300km/h (186mph) on purpose-built French ligne à grande vitesse (LGV), was immediately able to reduce journey times from London by 15 minutes. A further 15 minutes is set to be cut with the opening of section 2, expected in late 2007.

A fleet of 225km/h domestic Hitachi-built EMUs is due to begin operation on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link from about 2009, 30 years after the UK-designed advanced passenger train first ran at above this speed on sections of the West Coast Main Line. This will introduce Japanese high-speed technology to Britain, and it represents a different approach to the TGV-derived Eurostars.

The trains, branded 'Javelins', will make extensive use of lightweight construction and advanced traction technology to deliver high levels of efficiency. Hitachi is doubtless hoping to use the Javelin as a springboard to further British and European orders, and one proposed new train fleet in particular offers huge potential – the Intercity Express Programme (IEP).

REPLACING 1970S TECHNOLOGY

IEP is the British Government-derived name for the much-needed replacement of Britain's 200km/h high-speed train (HST) fleet, which entered service in the late 1970s. HSTs are becoming increasingly unreliable, with interiors that fall a long way behind passenger expectations.

"Electrification of the East Coast Main Line continued in parallel with development of the Intercity 225."

The trains form the backbone of long-distance services for the biggest operator, First Great Western (FGW – Paddington to the West Country), but there are also significant fleets operated over the Midland Main Line and with GNER (Great North Eastern Railway – East Coast Main Line).

FGW and GNER have embarked on an extensive upgrade programme that involves fitting more efficient engines to the power cars and completely new interiors.

However, most experts believe that HSTs will need replacing by 2015, when the oldest vehicles will be 39 years old.

The objective of IEP is to replace the diesel HST, and potentially the long-distance electric trains used on the East Coast and Anglian main lines, with a standard express train based on 26m vehicles. Specifications are being drawn up by the UK Department for Transport, but are likely to call for operation at 200km/h or above without resorting to tilt.

Other likely features are lightweight construction and flexibility in power train configuration, with a dual-mode diesel / electric variant a distinct possibility. The fleet is needed soon but Britain's government also needs to decide on whether to build a new high-speed line up the spine of the country. If this were to be built, IEP could be redundant even before it leaves the drawing board.

THE CASE FOR 300KM/H

For many years there have been calls for a 300km/h-plus high-speed line linking London with the big cities of Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow.

"The long-term Intercity Express Programme (IEP), which is expected to replace a number of long-distance fleets."

Repeated studies have shown a clear financial case for such a line, which could potentially cut Glasgow-London journeys in half from the current approximately four hours.

However, a government transport report published in 2006, led by former British Airways boss Rod Eddington, rejected such a line. Cited in 2001 as costing £33bn, the report pronounced that the line would only be used by business, and that the environmental benefits over air were not sufficient to justify the project.

This finding is contrary to experience in countries as diverse as Japan, Spain, Germany, France and Taiwan. These have all found that the introduction of high-speed rail cuts the number of air journeys on a given corridor and provides a massive boost to business and leisure travel. High-speed lines also increase capacity on existing routes meaning that more freight and local trains can operate.

Conventional high-speed rail in Britain also seems to take second place in some political imaginations to magnetic levitation (Maglev) technology, seen in some quarters as a generational improvement over wheels on rails. However, the case for Maglev is challenged by massive construction and operating costs, inflexible operation over non-standard interfaces and fragile train construction, as made apparent at the fatal accident at Lathen, Germany in 2006.

KEEPING UP WITH CAPACITY

The ace in the pack for Britain's high-speed rail advocates is that capacity on north-south routes is running short. On the WCML, for which improvements were still underway in 2007, major capacity problems are expected as early as 2011.

"High-speed rail in Britain is handicapped by a high population density, and comprehensive road and air links."

The experience from this route upgrade which costs more than £8bn is that expanding capacity on existing lines is extremely expensive and disruptive to users. Britain is going to have to bite the bullet and spend vast amounts of money on its busiest route very soon after the last upgrade is completed.

The argument next time must be that a new high-speed line on a less sinuous route with fewer junctions or conflicting services will ultimately be a far more effective use of resources.

For the moment, Britain seems destined to lag behind the leaders in high-speed rail – Channel Tunnel Rail Link excepted – in its use of high-speed rail. Other countries have proved that even limited high-speed operation can make a vast difference to passenger numbers. As road, rail, and air congestion continues to grow, Britain needs high-speed rail more than almost any country in the developed world.