Ed and Mary, the Great Central engines. Or, is there an alternative to HS2?

As a paid-up gricer, I’ve been semi-idly wondering for a while whether the Great Central (GC) trackbed could have provided an alternative to High Speed 2 (HS2). I say ‘semi-idly’ because I got as far as trying to compare the southern end of HS2 to the old Great Central main line before coming to the conclusion that HS2 wasn’t using as much of the old trackbed as it might. The GC closed in the late 1960s and there has been a fair bit of development over the old route. The last Labour government made noises about reopening the GC before giving its backing to what has become HS2.

Lo and behold, just as HS2 is due for debate in the House of Commons, the Great Central has suddenly been floated as an alternative. But I’m sorry to say that the article in the Sunday Telegraph is so lacking in substance that the GC plan is made out to be a non-starter. Much of the article is devoted to Grant Shapps and an ex-minister insulting the Labour party in general and Ed Balls in particular. The section of the article that actually bothers to address the proposal describes the £6Bn Great Central scheme as costing one tenth of the £50Bn HS2. My calculations dispute this. Further, HS2 has been specifically designed to run through Birmingham, which the GC does not. The Telegraph reckon that the GC route ‘closely resembles’ HS2 which is only the case inasmuch as Leicester closely resembles Birmingham.

Now the plans for a new GC are almost certainly better prepared than the Telegraph have presented. But it is almost too late for them to receive a fair hearing. Both sides in the argument have, it seems, used a lot of steam, dodgy data and flawed arguments to further their case, and the result has been to muddy the ballast. To provide a different metaphor, the debate has become a comparison of lemons (HS2) with rhubarb (GC). It’s probably now impossible to break the argument down into its core components, so if Ed Balls and Mary Creagh want to try, they need to do it quickly.

Personally, if I were them I’d throw out much of the analysis so far, such as the notion that time spent on a train is not available for work. The meat of the matter is whether the traffic forecasts are right when they suggest that the West Coast Main Line (WCML) is full by 2025, and, if the forecasts seem reasonable, what should be done about it.

The question is both simpler and more complex than the current debate allows – and we can only scratch the surface in a blog post. But forget the sophistry about the north-south divide, the pretty pictures and designs and the macho posturing about speed. It’s all about linear programming and train paths. That’s how line capacity gets worked out.

At this point the GC has a better case than the Telegraph lets on. If it became a freight only line, and if the WCML could become passenger only, then the number of additional train paths on the WCML would be greater than the number of paths vacated. The Birmingham question could be, er, shunted and made irrelevant. But some of the GC is still in use and pretty full as it is, and that’s before we start talking about the bits that have been built over.

The HS2 proposal makes the opposite offer: that the new line takes the fast paths and the WCML remains a general railway. There’s some logic behind having it this way round: WCML will need to carry some stopping trains, and it’s four-tracked for much of the route which is more useful to a general railway.

Which is a better proposal? GC would probably be cheaper but deliver less, and it may not be fully worked up. Then someone needs to work out what each delivers in terms of train paths. Actually, someone probably did, back around the time when the move was made away from GC and towards HS2. Lord Adonis, in Ed Balls’ team, could probably find the previous working.

Labour proposed HS2 but there’s been so much counter-information thrown at the project – and the money has moved so much – that it’s right for the party to have another, sober, look. Train paths are about as sober as it gets.

This post subsequently appeared in the Great Central Railway Society‘s journal, Forward.

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