HS2 may be facing an uncertain future but Scotland is quietly working up a high-speed link to England, writes Alastair Dalton.
It was a no-brainer, proposed nearly ten years ago to provide more space on Britain’s overcrowded rail network and speed up Scotland-London train journeys.
A truncated version from London to northern England, or HS2 as it became, commanded cross-party backing as the logical major next step for our railways, which lag decades behind our continental neighbours in high-speed lines.
Indeed, who would now scrap the Channel Tunnel rail link – now HS1 – despite vociferous opposition to its construction through Kent, which appeared to evaporate after completion?
But unlike its predecessor, HS2 doesn’t have the impetus of a fellow tunnel builder and far-keener French public opinion to see it through.
The devil has proved to be in the detail. First, the English rural opponents of a new line ploughing through their, albeit lush, backyards, and failing to see the bigger picture. Then the cost increases, perhaps inevitable for such a huge and complicated project. And now a further review, which could see it cut back.
Through all of this, Scots will have looked on bemused, knowing HS2’s plans would not make that big a difference to journey times between Glasgow, Edinburgh and London.
That is because the new 250mph trains would have to slow after leaving their high-speed tracks to the conventional line speed of 125mph for the rest of their journey to Scotland.
However, the Scottish Government realised Scotland was in danger of losing out, and struck a deal with the UK Department for Transport in 2016 that the cross-Border journey time should be cut three hours, compared to four at present. That’s how long it currently takes the fastest Edinburgh-London trains, which stop only once, but it should be commonplace by the end of 2021 if line upgrades are completed.
By contrast, HS2 alone would have only reduced the time to 3 hours 38 minutes.
‘We will not wait for Westminster’
The lobbying by Scottish ministers which led to this agreement followed then-Infrastructure Secretary Nicola Sturgeon vowing in 2012: “We will not wait for Westminster to bring high-speed rail to us”, pledging “to bring high speed rail to Scotland by 2024”.
I had thought things had all gone very quiet on those ambitions, but it turns out much work has continued behind the scenes at Transport Scotland. In fact, a feasibility study has identified three possible routes for the Scottish section of a line. One, on the east coast between the outskirts of Edinburgh and Newcastle, would reduce journeys between those cities to under 45 minutes – half the time it currently takes.
It would achieve the desired three-hours to London if HS2 was built to Leeds, and free up much space on the east coast main line.
On the west coast, a new line could run between Rutherglen, on the edge of Glasgow, and either Abington or Carstairs in South Lanarkshire. Again, this would free up capacity while also reducing Glasgow-London journeys to under three-and-a-half hours.
New stations could be built on the new line at the Eurocentral business park east of Glasgow, and on an existing line near Livingston.
Further research has been commissioned by Transport Scotland, including another feasibility study due to be completed by the end of the year. The results of these will ultimately lead to a proposal, or business case, going to Scottish and UK ministers.
Our already overburdened rail system is only getting busier, while the climate emergency is focusing concerns over air travel. It remains a no-brainer to progress with high-speed trains.