Tuesday, 4 August 2020

HS2 connecting the Northern Powerhouse to the Midlands Engine

Many proponents of HS2, myself included have over the years tried to ensure that the benefits of building HS2 are focused mainly on capacity, which is the most important reason for building the new railway. The journey time improvements that will be brought about by the introduction of HS2 services are welcome, and are indeed also important, but in terms of absolute need for the project, cutting journey times is secondary.

This is undeniably true for phase 1 between London and the West Midlands, which serves to alleviate the chronic capacity shortage on the existing southern section of the West Coast Mainline. Even heading further North, between the West Midlands and Crewe there is limited to no remaining capacity available on the WCML, this despite upgrades to the existing infrastructure, such at the £250m Stafford AreaImprovement Programme, which involved grade separation of Norton Bridge junction.

The East Coast Main Line is also nearing capacity and will benefit from construction of the eastern arm of HS2. The eastern section will benefit both the ECML and MML by releasing capacity on those lines for more local and regional services. With express services from Edinburgh, Newcastle, Leeds, Sheffield and others transferred onto HS2.

It seems however that the debate about whether or not to build the eastern section has resurfaced once again. There are those who ague; that the section from the West Midlands to Leeds and the ECML should not be built at all. They argue that it isn't required and capacity could be increased more cost effectively on the existing Midland and East Coast Main Lines.

I for one think this argument is nonsense and that the capacity argument which is true for the WCML is equally true for the ECML and MML. However I also think that a massive benefit of HS2 from the West Midlands to Leeds and Manchester is often overlooked.

That benefit being; the slashing of journey times from Leeds to Birmingham and from Manchester to Birmingham. A phrase which I often use (which is yet catch on) is "HS2 connects the Northern Powerhouse to the Midlands Engine". It's corny I know, but it does say simply what the northern section of HS2 is capable of delivering. Connecting regions covered by the Northern Powerhouse partnership with regions covered by the Midlands Engine partnership.

HS2 Ltd map showing phases 2a and 2b

Currently to get from Manchester to Birmingham takes 1 hour 30 minutes. To get from Leeds to Birmingham takes up to 2 hours! In this day and age it seems crazy that it takes so long. But it does highlight the fact that there simply isn't space on the existing infrastructure to improve services which connect 3 of the UK's largest cities.

If HS2 is delivered in full these journey times will be dramatically reduced. Manchester to Birmingham slashed to just 40 minutes, with Leeds to Manchester cut by over a half, to just 49 minutes. Journey time reductions such as these simply would not be possible without the construction of HS2.

HS2 Manchester to Birmingham - 40 minutes

HS2 Leeds to Birmingham - 49 minutes

Currently the fastest services from Leeds and Manchester to Birmingham are also some of the most crowded. The problem being that the Cross Country services which currently connect Leeds and Manchester to Birmingham also serve other routes, continuing south from Birmingham to Plymouth and Bournemouth. In effect Cross Country services serve two different markets, long distance to the south coast and regional to Birmingham. As vital as these sorts of long distance routes are, it does mean that passengers end up with busy, suboptimal regional links.

So whilst I agree it is absolutely critical that proponents of HS2 continue to push the message that HS2 is needed for capacity, I also think not enough emphasis is given to Leeds - Manchester - Birmingham connectivity. The connection of which with fast and frequent rail services could boost the economies of the Midlands and the North and shift the balance the UK economy north of Watford Gap.

I must point out however, that I do not subscribe to the argument that we should be building the northern sections first. Building the section between London and the West Midlands is needed to unlock capacity on the southern section of WCML. Providing extra capacity into London still remains vital and in addition unlocks the potential for even greater connectivity with other parts of the south via Old Oak Common.

I would like to discus Old Oak Common in more detail in a future blog.....

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Wednesday, 22 July 2020

UK first, class 230 hybrid train arrives at Wrexham

It was 3years ago when I first took a ride on the first prototype class 230, since then things have certainly moved on. The diesel powered 3 car unit which shuttled people between Honeybourne and Rail Live in 2017 has been developed into a diesel electric hybrid with advanced power systems and has also had a striking facelift.

The new hybrid units, which are a first for the UK, are very much like self charging hybrid cars. The 4 diesel engines housed underneath the centre vehicle charge 4 battery rafts, 2 under each driving vehicle. Power to drive the traction motors is taken directly from the batteries, with the motors able to return power back to the batteries using a regenerative braking system.

[update] I was made aware that the traction motors can take power directly from the engines, this is something didn't know before. But thought it is an important piece of information to share. I wasn't informed when the traction motors would likely need to take power directly from the engines, but the ability is there if needed, perhaps if the unit was full and making its way up the steep incline from Shotton towards Hawarden, or in the event one class 230 is required to rescue another.

 Class 230 006 at Wrexham General

The class 230s which have been built for Transport for Wales Rail are fitted with a 2 stage wheel slip protection system, with 1 stage able to precisely control the power being delivered to the wheels in order to prevent the wheels from slipping. This system will prove useful on the Wrexham Bidston line for which the units are intended. The line has many station stops, some spaced closely together along the 30 miles route, with a steep incline from Shotton up to Buckley which provides a challenge for train and the driver in wet conditions and during the autumn leaf fall season.

So far only 230 006 has made the journey north from Long Marston (where it was constructed and tested) to Wrexham. 006 is due to commence line specific testing once a second class 230 becomes available. Having 2 units stabled locally will mean that should a unit fail whilst out on the line for whatever reason, either one could recover the other.

007 is currently undergoing mileage accumulation on the Cotswolds line, as is 008, with 009 nearing completion. In total Transport for Wales Rail has ordered 5 units from Vivarail which, once delivered and sufficient drivers have been trained, will enable TfW to increase the service frequency on the Wrexham Bidston line from hourly to half hourly, starting from December 2021.

Having supported the D Train project from the very beginning and being part of the campaign for them to operate on the Wrexham Bidston (Borderlands) line, I must admit to being more than a little excited to hear 006 was making the journey to Wrexham on Monday (20th July). Having only seen pictures of the unit on the Cotswolds line it was good to finally get a chance to see the unit up close. It really does look fantastic, almost completely unrecognisable from the D 78 stock on which it is based.

The best bits of the stock such as aluminium body shells and recently replaced bogies have been kept, but almost all of the rest of the unit is brand new. The insides have been completely striped back to metal and new fixtures and fittings installed. Heavy structural work has taken place to reinforce the drivers cab and the gangways between carriages have been widened.

 Class 230 006 along side a class 150 which are set to be replaced on the Borderlands Line.

A small minority bemoan the use of the word "new" to describe the 230s, but given the work that has been carried out I think it's fair to call them new. The D78 stock on which the class 230 is based may
technically be older than the class 150s they're set to replace, but the difference in look and passenger facilities between the 2 units is night and day. Hopefully passengers will be able to judge for themselves soon, but I'm certain when the the 230s do enter service, the average passenger will have no idea that the train they are traveling on has its basis on a train dating from 1978.

[update] Since this blog was published, 230 006 has completed a number of test runs from Wrexham to Bidston and back again. During each run the unit has stopped briefly at each station along the line. Below is a video which compares the class 230 to the class 150 from a standing start, departing Neston station.

Update: side by side class 230 vs class 150 from a standing start.

More videos of 230 006 available here.

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