Britain's entry into the high-speed rail club came very late. From its inception in September 2003, the opening of an entire 109km (68 mile) line from London to the Channel Tunnel will finally happen in November 2007. At a cost of £5.8bn it will be Britain's first fixed link, named High Speed 1.
In the mid-1990s, when the French were preparing to open their own high-speed link from Lille to the Channel Tunnel at Sangatte near Calais, Britain hadn't decided whether it was going to build one at all. Lengthy planning processes combined with political indecision put a question mark over the concept.
Even when Channel Tunnel passenger operator Eurostar began operation, the issue had not been addressed.
The project originated from London & Continental Railways, a consortium of eight major shareholders. The consortium included design and planning consultancy Ove Arup and Partners, engineering firm Bechtel, train and transport operators Virgin and National Express, investment bank SBG Warburg and French rail project manager Systra.
Eventually, a 74km route was settled on, running alongside existing road and rail corridors north from the Channel Tunnel at Folkestone and joining conventional routes in south-east London.
It would be one of the most expensive railway lines in the world on a cost-per-kilometre basis.
Construction began in winter 1998 and control passed to the newly formed Network Rail in 2002.
The long-term ambition was to build a second shorter section from the end of the 300km/h Section 1 under the River Thames and into St Pancras station in north London. Section 2 would require extensive tunnelling under London, and the cost reflected that: the majority of HS1's total was incurred on Section 2.
Funding was meant to come from profits made by Eurostar but it soon became clear that these would never be sufficient to cover construction. A compromise was agreed, whereby the British track authority would fund the line and recover revenue through track access charges.
PROMISING EARLY PROGRESS
Work on Section 1 progressed smoothly, and soon major structures, such as the huge cut-and-cover box near Ashford, the 3.2km North Downs Tunnel and Medway viaduct took shape. At Ashford, which featured dedicated platforms for Eurostar trains, construction was complicated by the need to provide connecting chords from the high-speed line to the platforms that are on the conventional network.
Construction on Section 2 was well under way by the time Section 1 opened in September 2003. Although only able to operate at 300km/h for a relatively short distance, the line's impact was immediate, prompting significant punctuality and reliability increases and winning passenger traffic from the airlines. Since then, the focus has been on completing Section 2 and preparing for Eurostar to transfer from its current London terminus, Waterloo International.
Section 2's engineering challenges have been immense. Tunnelling under the Thames involved building a twin-bore tunnel with steep gradients at either end. The surface section from the north side of the Thames Tunnel to Dagenham required extensive use of piling under the trackbed to ensure stability. In addition, tunnelling from Dagenham to Stratford and Stratford to St Pancras is, at 20km, one of the longest tunnel sections on a high-speed line anywhere in the world.
New stations, Stratford International in east London and Ebbsfleet (scheduled 17min from St Pancras), south of the Thames, should expand Eurostar's business outside the centre of London. Ebbsfleet in particular is being promoted as a park-and-ride station and for business development, lying conveniently close to arterial routes and also to London's orbital motorway, the M25.
Eurostar's UK maintenance, initially conducted at the purpose-built North Pole depot in west London, is to be transferred to a new facility at Temple Mills, near Stratford. This has the advantage of being far closer to the new route than the current depot, which would have required convoluted journeys to St Pancras.
REJUVENATING A 19TH CENTURY LANDMARK
St Pancras station was built in 1869, its overall trainshed and former Midland Hotel frontage being architectural landmarks. The station already had a train operator, the domestic passenger franchise Midland Mainline (MML) – to be replaced by Stagecoach Midland at the end of 2007.
Too small for Eurostar and MML to operate side-by-side, an extension was designed to accommodate MML trains and also to cover the 18-coach Eurostar trains. With potential changes to existing buildings being highly restricted, architects opted for a largely flat-roofed extension that had to be as long as, and wider than, the existing building.
There were many interfaces with Britain's conventional network to consider in this area. Although Eurostar services are segregated from others, the longer-term possibility of serving destinations north of London meant connections to the East Coast Main Line and North London Line were built, while freight facilities that lay in the path of the proposed lines had to be moved and new connections established.
MML moved to a temporary location in the eastern half of the trainshed extension. With this move complete, engineers started clearing the old trainshed and building the western half of the extension. Here, another interface came into play – the sub-surface north-south Thameslink line.
Thameslink services were suspended while foundations for the trainshed extension and a new concrete box to house Thameslink platforms were built. Only when these were complete could the western extension be completed and MML could move to its long-term home.
Although preserving its original splendour, the station has been transformed for its new role as St Pancras International. The single arching roof has had its glass reinstated, while the main concourse level will largely be for public access. Eurostar platforms will be enclosed by clear screens.
Access to Eurostar is from below, in the station's undercroft – a vertically confined space, but in terms of floor area far more spacious than the current Waterloo facility. All passenger operations and checks will be conducted below track level, with escalators to the platforms, which are one floor above ground level.
Trips from London to Paris will take no more than 2h 15min, at least 20min less than present times – the latter already a saving of 15min since Section 1 opened. On 4th September 2007 a record-breaking journey sliced the time to just under 2h 4min, making London comparable to other cities within two hours of Paris, such as Strasbourg and Brussels.
For many passengers, particularly from north of London, Eurostar connections will be vastly improved. London terminals of the West and East Coast Main Lines (respectively Euston and Kings Cross) are less than ten minutes' walk away. Other terminals such as Paddington and Victoria are a few stops away by London Underground.
The move to St Pancras means that Waterloo's status as an international terminal will be over. Connections from south of London, particularly south-west of London, will however be made more difficult.
International services are only part of the plans for HS1. From 2009, 225km/h (140mph) domestic services will start from St Pancras travelling to destinations in Kent, using a fleet of 29 dual-system EMUs being built by Hitachi at a cost of £250m. They will be fitted with British signalling and safety equipment for use on conventional lines and TVM-430 cab signalling as used on HS1.
For operation away from HS1, the Class 395 'Javelins' will be fitted with shoegear for 750V dc third-rail lines. The design is based on the Japanese 'A-Train', which is typically lighter and more energy efficient than some European designs. The order represents a significant coup for Hitachi, being the Japanese company's first major European order.
Typical journey times from St Pancras to Ashford will be 37min, which compares favourably with the present 83min journey times. The Javelins will offset plans to reduce Eurostar services to Ashford and will improve connections at Stratford International, which seems likely to see few Eurostar trains stopping there.
The Javelin fleet is expected to play a vital role in the London 2012 Olympic Games. An intensive service is planned for transporting passengers to the main Olympic Park at Stratford with a journey time from St Pancras of 7min.
HS1 was planned to be the world's first truly mixed-traffic high-speed line. Provision was made on Section 1 for loop lines capable of holding freight trains while passenger trains pass. The route is suitable for continental loading gauge wagons, too big for operation on conventional UK lines, although the steep gradients (as much as 1:40) would pose a stiff challenge for heavy trains. However, since the line opened in 2003, no freight has been carried.
Concerns have been expressed that the track geometry, particularly the cant of the curves, is unsuitable for freight as running heavy slow trains would significantly increase rail wear. While there have been proposals for a new freight facility at Ripple Lane on Section 2, it seems increasingly unlikely that cargo will ever use this line.
High Speed 1 is a rare achievement: a major railway project opening on-time and to budget. In engineering terms it represents a significant leap forward for high-speed lines, which in Europe tend to use conventional tracks for the last few kilometres into city centres. The bold use of tunnels under London means that speeds of at least 200km/h are maintained much closer to St Pancras than to stations such as Gare du Nord in Paris.
Thanks to high-quality project management – as well as a vast amount of expertise on the part of contractors – HS1 is set to deliver the operational benefits it has long promised. Massively expensive, the project partially reflects the very high land values in the UK.
Eurostar already beats airlines for market share on the London–Paris and Brussels routes. With the move into St Pancras on schedule for November 2007, the future looks bright. It remains to be seen, however, whether HS1 will remain a one-off line, or whether it will provide the impetus for the UK to expand high-speed operation out of South East England into its other big cities.