The first high speed rail line between two British cities is expected to be completed in 2026, sixty two years after Japan gave the world its first high speed rail. This is about the same time from the first manned flight to putting a man on the moon. Aidan Grisewood, Transport Scotland’s Director Rail, made this point recently in a presentation on High Speed Rail in Scotland given to the IMechE’s Railway Division in Glasgow.

His comments are also reflected in figures published by the International Union of Railways on miles of high-speed lines in place or planned by 2025, with the UK being last of sixteen countries. Its 70 miles is miniscule compared with the four front runners – China, Spain, France and Japan which respectively plan to have 5678, 4415, 4135 and 3774 miles.

The good news is that, in 2026, the planned HS2 line from London to Birmingham should add 140 miles while last month’s announcement of the phase 2 extensions to Manchester and Leeds will add a further 221 miles by 2032.

Only half way

The announcement of plans to extend the high speed rail network north of Birmingham is welcome news. Overlaying the planned high-speed Y network over a satellite photo of the UK at night shows how it connects centres of population north of London.

However the current plan only takes high speed rail halfway from London to Scotland and doesn’t even reach the population centres of North East England. The plan reduces the London to Glasgow time by 50 minutes to 3 hrs 30mins whereas a complete high-speed route would bring this down to only 2 hrs 15 minutes. Moreover, it is possible that this reduction may not be fully realised unless tilting trains can run on the high-speed lines as otherwise there will be longer running times on the winding conventional lines north of Preston.

So, in Scotland the response to this announcement was – why not go all the way? Local authorities and business leaders demanded that the high speed network be extended north of the border and Scotland’s Transport Minister, Keith Brown, called on his Westminster counterpart to commit to a timetable to extend high-speed rail to Scotland.

That extra 200 miles of high speed rail will not come cheap. However, the European experience is that the greatest benefit from high speed rail is over long distances such as London to Edinburgh / Glasgow. For example, after TGVs were introduced on the comparable 412 mile route between Paris and Marseille, rail’s market share increased from 22% to 65%.

This is reinforced by the report “Fast forward – a high speed rail strategy for Britain” published by Greengauge in 2009 which estimated the regional economic benefits of high speed rail. For central Scotland, the estimated benefit was £19.8 billion (net present value, over a 60 year period) compared with £5.4 billion for the West Midlands. A comprehensive study undertaken by Network Rail in 2009 (New Lines Programme) concluded that the most cost effective option for a rail route between London and Scotland was a new high-speed route connecting London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Over a 60 year period it was considered that for a cost of £35 billion this would generate benefits worth £55 billion.

Scottish high-speed campaign

Not surprisingly, the Scottish Government is keen to encourage high speed rail. To do so in 2011 it formed the Scottish Partnership Group for High Speed Rail. This Group brought together Glasgow and Edinburgh city councils, Network Rail, Scottish Chambers of Commerce, Transport Scotland and others representing a cross-section of Scottish civic and business life. It reviewed the business case for high-speed rail to Scotland and asked 40 businesses for their views. Having done so, the group produced its “Fast Track Scotland” report which sets out Scotland’s case for high speed rail and demonstrated the considerable support for it.

Transport Scotland organised a high level summit in Glasgow in November 2012 to further promote the case to extend high-speed rail to Scotland and Northern England. At this summit, Under Secretary of State for Transport Norman Baker advised that the UK Government considered the benefits of high speed rail for Scotland were crucial to the economic wellbeing of the whole country. He gave an assurance that the UK government will continue to work closely with its partners in Scotland to achieve this.

This assurance is reflected in the Department for Transport’s command paper “High Speed Rail Investing in Britain’s Future Phase Two: The route to Leeds, Manchester and beyond”. This paper welcomes Scotland’s interest in high-speed rail and commits to a joint study with Transport Scotland to consider Scotland’s aspirations for high speed rail. However it refers to cutting journey times to less than 3 hours with options which could include new high speed lines and/or upgrades to the existing network. This perhaps indicates that the DfT has yet to commit to a complete high speed line to Scotland which would give a 2 hour 15 minute journey time.

Edinburgh to Glasgow at 140mph

Baker’s presentation to the high speed summit was overshadowed by Scotland’s deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon. She announced that Scotland is not waiting for Westminster to deliver high-speed rail north of the border but would instead be “firing ahead” with its own plans to build a high speed line which could see 140mph trains running between Edinburgh and Glasgow – cutting journey times to less than 30 minutes. She felt that this line could be complete by 2024, two years ahead of the HS2 London to Birmingham line.

This announcement wasn’t greeted with universal acclaim. As there are already four routes between Scotland’s two main cities, some critics couldn’t see the need for another. Concerns have also been expressed on the lack of information about funding, costs, routes and location of terminal stations. It was clear from Grisewood’s presentation that such criticism misses the point as a faster journey time between Edinburgh and Glasgow is only one benefit of a plan which will also relieve congestion on the existing rail network. At the Scottish high-speed summit, the importance of this point was emphasised by David Simpson, route managing director for Network Rail Scotland, who advised that 30% more train services were operating in Scotland than a decade ago.

The real rationale for a high speed rail line within Scotland is a recommendation of the Scottish Partnership Group for High Speed Rail that the Scottish end of the UK high speed network should be built as soon as possible to get the immediate benefit of a high speed line between Edinburgh and Glasgow.

This requires around 40 miles of new UIC Gauge high speed railway with no new stations (new city centre stations will not be required until there is a high-speed connection from the south). In addition, it is felt that the geography of southern central Scotland will not require tunnels. The estimated cost of the 140 miles of HS2 from London to Birmingham is £16 billion or £115 million per mile. With stations and tunnels accounting for almost half HS2 construction costs, the Scottish line should cost significantly less than this. Put it in context, its cost is likely to be of the same order as the new Forth road bridge currently under construction.

Scotland’s high speed timetable

The Scottish Government’s plan for a high speed rail line in 2024 requires construction to start in 2018. This needs a Parliamentary Bill to be introduced in 2016 based on an outline design which will require surveys, investigations and an Environmental Impact Assessment to be undertaken in 2015. Thus the selected route would need to be decided in 2014 on the basis of route options developed in 2013.

In the discussion following the presentation to the IMechE, it became apparent that perhaps the most difficult decision was the location of the terminal stations. Grisewood advised that the advice from HS2 was to determine station locations before choosing a high speed route. In the short term this is not an issue for a proposed Scottish high speed line which will initially use existing stations and their approach tracks. However, passive provision is required for new UIC gauge city-centre terminals which will be constructed as the high-speed line reaches Scotland.

Possible routes from England

The Scottish high-speed proposal is at the top end of a high-speed line from England, the route of which has yet to be decided. In his presentation, Grisewood showed how a Scottish high speed line running south of the central belt would fit into all UK high speed network options under consideration. He advised that Transport Scotland is working closely with HS2 to ensure connectivity with the new route from the south. Transport Scotland expect that the preferred high speed route to Scotland will be chosen by 2015.

Although Transport Scotland is wise to ensure its high-speed route can accommodate all feasible routes from the south, the DfT’s command paper on high-speed routes to Leeds, Manchester and beyond offers a strong indication of current thinking. In this paper, a diagram entitled “Vision for High Speed Britain” shows the West Coast Main Line connected to the Manchester arm of the high-speed network running to Glasgow and Edinburgh. It also shows the East Coast Main Line connected to the Leeds arm of the network and finishing at Newcastle. East and West coast lines are classified as “classic comparable services” whereas the line from Newcastle to Edinburgh is an “existing line with potential for future connection to HS2”. It therefore seems a fair bet that the eventual high-speed route to Scotland will be a west coast route.

Current thinking is that a high speed route from the south will open around 15 years after the Scottish high speed line. Until then a further option under consideration is a high speed line between the West Coast mainline and the Scottish high speed line. This would speed up journeys across the border by around 15 minutes and release capacity on lines to Edinburgh and Glasgow. This could become part of the high speed network if a west coast route option was selected.

The work of generations

HS2 technical director Andrew McNaughton has described the construction of the UK’s high speed rail network as the work of generations with it being many years before England and Scotland are connected by a high speed rail network. The Scottish Government’s plans, however, should give Scotland an internal high speed rail link in the foreseeable future, perhaps even before HS2’s London to Birmingham project. It’s also possible that the example of Scottish high speed rail might spur construction of the remainder of the network to make it the work of one less generation.