Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

High Speed Rail & Scotland: Delivering a Better Fit with Socio-Economic Strategy – Tom Hart

The Current Position
The March Reports by the UK and Scottish Governments and by HS2 Ltd have provided more information on HSR prospects for Scotland and the North of England.  Five options, two being West Coast and three East Coast variants, are examined for the extension of HSR route beyond present proposals for completion from London to Crewe by 2027 and onwards to Wigan and Manchester plus new line from Birmingham Airport to just north of Leeds by 2033.  From 2027 HSR services will be able to extend beyond Crewe on existing route to both Glasgow and Edinburgh but since HSR trains lack the tilt capability of present Virgin West Coast services, trip times from London using the completed Y shape new route to Wigan and Leeds/York by 2033 would be no lower than 3 hours 38 minutes, only slightly better than Virgin East Coast plans to deliver shorter times on the existing London Kings Cross-Edinburgh route (with sections raised from 125 to 140 mph operation) by the mid to late 2020s.

The agreed UK and Scottish Government aim is to deliver 3 hour trip times from London to both Edinburgh and Glasgow but with no date for completion specified.  Further work by both Governments in 2017 is scheduled to reach agreement by 2019 on the start of a programme to deliver 3 hour timings together with the Scottish Government aspiration for frequent HSR services between Glasgow and Edinburgh in 28 minutes.  The HS2 Ltd technical preference has always been for the greater resilience offered by building new route allowing maximum speeds of 200/250mph on almost 100% of route used by HSR services north to the Scottish Central Belt. This could provide 2 hour 30 minute trip times between London and  both Glasgow and Edinburgh but at a high capital cost likely to be beyond what could be justified by wider economic benefits and competing priorities for funding.

While a West Coast corridor could provide 2 hour 30 minute trip times from both Glasgow and Edinburgh to London, use of an East Coast corridor via Newcastle could give this time to Edinburgh but with Glasgow only reached by very expensive and controversial new route through the Borders to join a new line between Carstairs and Glasgow.  Though no favoured option is likely to be announced by the UK and Scottish Governments until 2017, HS2 Ltd does conclude that 3 hour timings could be provided from London to both Glasgow and Edinburgh by phased upgrades and sections of new route beyond Wigan – including new route from Wigan to north of Lancaster, between Penrith and Shap and Scottish Government involvement in new route from north of Carstairs to inner Glasgow, also facilitating HSR between Glasgow and Edinburgh) (see LTT694 1 April and Stephanie Browne features in Rail issues 796 & 797, 16 & 30 March)

Similar opportunities are seen in northern England with the UK March Budget highlighting devolution within England and an emphasis on large rises in rail and road investment inter-connecting northern cities.  Transport for the North (of England) has been established and there is now an accord on joint working with Transport Scotland.  This accord could lead to benefits for Scotland through the provision of bypasses for  Morpeth, Newcastle and York plus new line through County Durham.

Critique and Future Prospects
The HS2 proposals and what is being termed HS3 across northern England have attracted much attention but with the UK government and Network Rail also stressing the importance of upgrades of the existing British rail network and a much larger element of devolved decision taking and funding.   These could be seen as complementary developments in that new HSR route can ease severe capacity problems arising on existing routes while also giving the opportunity to increase connectivity through more frequent and faster inter-city services with quality interchange to and from improving city region networks.

New route can be cheaper to provide than the costs and disruption arising from quadrupling more sections of inter-city route to handle the differing speed ranges of freight and of ‘intermediate’ express and more localised passenger services.  New route can be better aligned for high-speed with few passenger trains operating below 120/140mph.  The difficult issue for HS2 Ltd is that the high capital cost of new HSR route (and related new stations not always well connected with existing regional networks) may not be as beneficial for economic and social objectives as alternative strategies.  Both HS2 and the UK government are inclined to hype the total economic benefits of HSR and a shift in the balance of economic activity away from London and the south-east.  The scale of these benefits, relative to alternative spending options, is open to question with many benefits not gained until well into the future.  A significant shift away from the south-east is likely to need more substantial fiscal, pricing and innovation strategies than only an HSR focus.

The political interest in HS2 may be hindering appraisal of alternative options, including improvement of inter and intra-regional rail networks reducing requirements to invest heavily in road and giving a better ratio of total benefits to costs through close integration of investment  in HSR and existing rail networks over the next 15 years.  This could also make a greater contribution to low carbon programmes – as called for in the March Report of the UK Committee on Climate Change – and action to improve health, education, productivity and the overall environment.  The LTT 693 editorial on 18 March 2016 queried why demand management has been replaced by a surge of interest in both rail and road investment.

The recent report by the Competition and Marketing Authority favouring greater competition on the East and West Coast corridors has also raised fears that fare cuts on longer distance travel could discourage early investment in HSR routes to relieve severe capacity constraints.  Yet there is an urgent need to tackle track capacity issues by investment in priority sections of new HSR route, easing already apparent tensions in the allocation of short and longer-distance train slots for both passenger and freight  movement.

Government argues that increased, but better controlled, investment in the existing rail network is being secured with HSR investment only rising sharply from 2020.  But this evades the issue of whether the balance of funding for HSR, the existing inter-regional rail network and city-region transport networks is optimal.   Also, how strong is the case for present proposals to increase road investment?  Should road demand management receive more attention along with a greater shift from major trunk road investments to rail and to local road maintenance and public realm/active travel improvements?   Apart from London, city transit also remains relatively neglected in the coming decade.  Delays and cost overruns have been experienced in electrifying already busy rail routes and in identifying lesser adjustments, including some new route, reshaping the present inter-regional passenger and freight network to offer better value and greater prospects for road traffic reduction.  Devolution to the English regions has left a gap in developing an effective inter-regional transport strategy.  An emphasis only on developing HSR fails to fill this gap.

Towards a Reshaped Strategy for Anglo-Scottish Rail
There are already signs of a reshaped strategy north of Birmingham with increased emphasis on the gains from using sections of HSR route and upgraded existing route to improve express links within the north and potentially on through services into Wales and points other than London in southern England .  Proposals are also being studied for fuller integration of Manchester Airport in future networks.  In conjunction with longer freight trains, much of the main inter-city network will continue to handle expanding longer-distance freight assisted by passing loops allowing passenger trains to overtake, some track quadrupling and more attention to the development of diversionary and emergency routes.  But many of these proposals are piecemeal rather than part of a phased strategy for long-distance rail complemented by improving networks within regional devolution.

These issues need to be addressed in revised five-year strategies for rail and road to the early 2030s compatible with potentially larger rises in rail modal share and new route construction into the 2040s.  A crucial need is to ensure that infrastructure plans facilitating an expansion of inter-regional passenger and freight movement are agreed for the 2019-24, 2024-29 and 2029-34 planning periods – though with provision for variations in the light of emerging circumstances.

The UK and Scottish Governments are committed to decisions in 2017 on reshaped rail and road programmes.  These need to include accelerated build of a mix of new and upgraded existing route north from Crewe and York, recognising both Transport for the North aims and the reality of strong growth in rail use between Scotland, northern England and the Midlands.  In 2013-14 Anglo-Scottish rail passenger trips reached 8m, 75% up on 1995-96 but with growth in trips to and from the north of England up almost 150% and accounting for almost 50% of all Anglo-Scottish trips.  (Scottish Transport Statistics, 2015 edition, Table 7.4)

Current action on large improvements in services between Scotland, northern England and Birmingham are intensifying this growth trend into the 2020s.  Virgin East and West Coast also expect the balance of Scotland-London air/rail travel to rise from the present 30% rail share to 50% by 2023 with further rises to 70% or higher on delivery of 3 hour trip times from Glasgow and Edinburgh.  Such prospects are bringing larger and earlier additions to net income (as well as wider economic and social benefits) from a mix of new and upgraded track catering for non-London inter-city services operating up to 140mph as well as an increase in freight usage and HSR services to London operating up to 200mph.  Within a reshaped network for the North and Midlands, stops for what could be termed a Tier 2 of express regional and inter-regional services will often only be 30 to 40 miles apart, making it impossible for trains to exceed 140mph for any significant distance.  Only Tier 1 HSR services would have higher speeds but more widely spaced stops, including no stops between Birmingham Airport and Old Oak Common or Euston .

Two other issues require attention as part of carefully phased and cost-effective programmes to the early 2030s. These relate to station location and train design.  On station location, there is still conflict between new HSR stations at some distance from principal existing city stations and integration of HSR services in existing, but enlarged, through stations.  Opinion is tending to favour the latter – though London Euston and Glasgow Central will continue to be terminal stations.  This strategy allows high-quality interchange with improved city transit and between Tier 1 and Tier 2 inter-city services.  In some cases, alternatives may still be favoured.  Government and user interests also affect the issue of providing HSR services through major airports and through from some HSR stations in Britain to the continental mainland.  More study is needed of how far the cost of major station extension can be eased through provision of improved city transit offering good interchange with longer-distance services and airports.

On train design, the present HS2 position is to reject any future use of tilting trains and focus on the need for lengthy trains (400 metres) to maximise capacity. While tilting trains (such as the present Virgin Pendolinos) can permit shorter trip times and less need to adapt infrastructure for higher speeds, they involve higher vehicle construction costs, higher maintenance, reliability issues (if tilt mechanisms fail) and higher track maintenance costs.   On much existing track, it is not possible for tilt to permit speeds above 140mph. Yet, given recognition that HSR trains will operate on substantial sections of existing track for at least the next twenty years, there is a case for considering some HSR trains incorporating tilt and reducing the need for completely new line where track capacity issues are less acute.

In the medium term, shorter but more frequent trains with ticket price differentials can improve usage and revenue.  There can be advantages in either dividing 400m trains at certain points to run to different destinations or in ordering shorter trains for HSR use and a later cascade to other routes.  Current HS2 proposals still involve a loss of 7 minutes while half-hourly trains from London divide at Carstairs for Glasgow and Edinburgh but alternatives could be the use of shorter trains running separately to Glasgow and to Edinburgh or the use of electronic systems (being considered for HGV convoys) to allow a rapid split of trains at stations such as Preston or Carlisle.  Bi-mode trains, already on order, could also permit some HSR trains to operate beyond the limits of electrification, though at lower speeds, or in conjunction with lower-cost electrification allowing wiring to be avoided on short sections of route with clearance problems.  Longer, rather than more frequent, trains are likely to merit greater priority in the freight market, assisted by provision of some longer passing loops or sections of quadruple track.

The overall conclusion is that future HSR strategy is best developed in close conjunction with strategies offering wider benefits through lower levels of domestic air travel and of road traffic growth (already much lower than in the 20th century and with some absolute falls in car use per head of city population).  HSR must link well with high quality city transit and further modal shift to rail in a phased reshaping of the national rail network (including some new build) to encourage passenger and freight usage.  Options which should be evaluated for possible delivery by the early 2030s include tilting trains, extended new route from Crewe to north of Lancaster, HSR in the Scottish Central Belt and priority for new route from south of Sheffield via Leeds to north of York  in  conjunction with upgrades of existing onward route via Newcastle.  Later in the 2030s, an East Coast HSR route to London and the Channel tunnel via Peterborough, Cambridge and Stansted Airport may become justifiable, including bypasses for Morpeth and Berwick-on-Tweed.

The Role of HSR in Scottish Transport Strategy: 2020 – 2030
Clarity is needed on the distinction between HSR services and new HSR route.  HSR services will extend over a greater length of existing inter-city route than that of new route.  Their key purpose will be to offer improved inter-city connectivity also encouraging shifts from car use and easing conflicts between passenger and rail freight flows.

Rather than 3 hour HSR trip times between the two largest Scottish cities and London by an uncertain date in the late 2030s, 3 hours is a realistic target for 2030 with the potential bonuses of :-

  1. a) a higher service frequency from Glasgow Central to Edinburgh in 28 minutes – also releasing space at Glasgow Queen St for additional services to Stirling and the north (Transport Scotland, March 2016)
  1. b) shorter trip times and improved frequency on Tier 2 inter-city services from Glasgow and Edinburgh to Lancashire, north-east England and the Midlands (some using the West Coast corridor and some East Coast)

Three hour times and an improved ratio of benefits to costs are feasible with only three sections of lengthier new build (from Crewe to north of Lancaster, outwards from Glasgow and on Edinburgh’s western approach plus the NR Scotland ‘Route Study’ scheme for 30 miles of quadruple tracking south from Carstairs).  Study of the possible gains from tilting passenger trains and longer freight trains could allow substantial savings in infrastructure costs without prejudice to 3 hour timings by 2030.  At Glasgow Central, there could be a high frequency shuttle link to Glasgow Airport as early as 2025.

The above network would offer good connections further north at Edinburgh, a major objective of the Scottish Government in extending HSR benefits throughout Scotland.  Bi-mode trains could provide some through services until electrification is completed to Aberdeen and Inverness (though both these cities are seeking earlier electrification than the 2034 and post 2040 dates suggested in the Network Rail Scotland Draft Route Study published in December 2015).  More inter-city route in Scotland would also be raised to 100/125 mph standards as part of Scottish Government policies to extend the benefits of HSR to more parts of Scotland.

Other outstanding problems are:-

1)  the imbalance in capacity demands into Edinburgh, with demand being much higher from the west – and even more so if 4 HSR shuttles per hour are added between Glasgow Central and Waverley

2) strengthening action to encourage shifts to public transport, cycling and walking in the areas around the city centres of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen

3) the lack of direct inter-city rail access to Scotland’s existing principal airport at Edinburgh

4) the increasing isolation of Dumfries as other towns come within a 1 hour rail trip of Glasgow and Edinburgh

5) using the revised National Transport Strategy and Planning Framework to remedy the (understandable) omission from the Network Rail Scotland Draft Route Study of rail and tram network extensions

These issues need to be addressed with some urgency in the revised Scottish Transport Strategy due in 2017 and including five-year phased programmes incorporating HSR plans.   Some possible solutions are outlined below but fuller debate is needed on wider options, funding availability and the robustness of benefits.  4.5.1 may present the least difficulty as there  is already a preference for Waverley to remain the principal Edinburgh station with priority action to improve the eastern twin-track approach.  Coming from the west, extra slots for longer-distance trains could be provided by terminating some local services at Haymarket or extending these as tramtrains along Princes St and on the Edinburgh South Suburban Line, presently without passengers (except during emergency diversions) but with tramtrain potential.

In addition to the inter-city market and some growth in longer-distance commuting, funding and regulatory strategy will require to support 4.5.2, especially in the three cities mentioned, through a combination of greater attention to city transit, active travel and appropriate changes in land use planning,  interchanges and ticketing

Being effectively Scotland’s central airport with most users already being international passengers, Edinburgh Airport and Scotland as a whole could gain from placing the Airport on the national rail network but in ways differing from the original, and abandoned, EARL proposals.  Diverting some existing services and future HSR services through the Airport with an added link to Fife and the north via the Forth Rail Bridge could widen HSR benefits and ease capacity problems through Haymarket to Edinburgh Waverley.  Though some phases of such development may come after 2030, Network Rail Scotland has already suggested that an initial phase of new and upgraded route through Fife should be completed by 2029, shortening trip times from Edinburgh to Perth, Dundee and points north.  A further  20 miles of new build in the early 2030s could permit 2 hour 45 minute  trip times from London to Edinburgh Airport with Dundee reached in 3 hrs 15 minutes and Aberdeen in  4 hours.  There could also be an alternative service from Glasgow to Dundee running from Glasgow Central on pre-existing HSR route through Lanarkshire and then via Edinburgh Airport and Fife.

South of the Central Belt, Dumfries stands out as one of the larger towns with no rail service to Edinburgh and a circuitous route to Glasgow via Kilmarnock.  Rather than the cost and disruption of quadruple tracking 30 miles south from Carstairs over Beattock summit but with maximum line speeds little changed, might it be better to consider a new 15 mile link across to the Nithsdale route near Carronbridge and onward upgrades via Dumfries to Carlisle capable of 180/200 mph operation OR the alternative of diverting rail freight and Tier 2 inter-city services via Dumfries with the route via Beattock and Lockerbie adapted for 180/200 mph operation?   These options should be compared both with current proposals for HSR upgrades north from Carlisle and with more detailed evaluation of a rising number of proposals for rail reopening or route extensions and some continuing proposals for major road schemes and local roads.


Neither HSR schemes nor major road schemes should be seen in isolation from the need for multi-modal corridor and city region evaluations prior to selection of schemes gaining priority in phased 5-year programmes to the early 2030s for inter-regional and international transport, complementing city region development and broadband communication. Preferred schemes should off high and early benefits relative to costs with good prospects to follow of higher and wider benefits.

Transport programmes will have to be compatible with what may be seen by government, business and the public as higher priorities outwith transport for the growth of a low carbon economy and rises in productivity and well-being.  Conventional rail improvement and HSR can be part of this approach but not over-hyped with new HSR route taking up an excessive portion of restricted resources.  The two most favourable factors assisting rail prospects are better control of infrastructure costs and the 20 years of evidence that rail usage and related earnings have been rising more quickly than operating costs and contributing significant, and added, benefits in terms of shifts in modal share from road use and from domestic aviation.  The must be taken fully into account in new, but carefully phased, strategies for transport in Scotland, across Britain and to and from international origins and destinations.

Tom Hart is a former Lecturer in Economic History, a member of the Scottish Association for Public Transport and an appointed member of Strathclyde Partnership for Transport