On 2 August several square metres of brickwork fell off one side of a road bridge over the Midland Main Line at Barrow-upon-Soar, Leicestershire. Tons of rubble landed on the railway and all trains were stopped. There are no trains between Leicester and Loughborough, and hence no trains from Sheffield, Derby or Nottingham to St Pancras.
On 2 August the line was open from St Pancras as far as Leicester, but the service had to be revised because some trains were stuck the other side of the blockage. On 3 August Network Rail reopened two of the four tracks between Nottingham and Leicester, allowing some through trains to be restored. Network Rail says the line can be fully reopened “in days rather than weeks”. I hope they are right.
THE EAST MIDLANDS’ OTHER MAIN LINE TO LONDON
Sheffield, Nottingham, Loughborough and Leicester used to have another main line to London. The Great Central criss-crossed the Midland line as far south as Leicester, and then took a more westerly route through Rugby, Brackley and Aylesbury. Its terminus was Marylebone, which is now the London terminus of Chiltern Railways.
The GC was Britain’s most modern north-south main line, having been completed more than 30 years after the Midland. And it was better engineered than the Midland, avoiding sharp curves and steep gradients. After nationalisation in 1948 the GC Main Line was relatively under-used, but even in the 1960s it still made a profit. It survived Dr Beeching’s cuts in the early 1960s but was closed under a Labour government in the late 1960s.
Most of the GCML between Nottingham and Leicester survives as an excellent heritage railway. But the line between Sheffield and Nottingham, and between Leicester and Aylesbury is now abandoned and overgrown. Between Aylesbury and London it survives as part of Chiltern Railways.
UK rail traffic has grown every year for the last 20 years. Demand for more capacity is acute. Any sane government would have reopened the GCML by now. With enough willpower, it could go from being proposed in Parliament to being completed in phases in about 10–12 years. The cost might be in the order of £15 billion.
HS2: AN ANSWER IN SEARCH OF A QUESTION
Instead, seven years ago Andrew Adonis dreamt up the grandiose and vainglorious HS2, which will cost far more and take much longer to build than reopening the GCML. Were HS2 open now, of course, passengers from Sheffield and Nottingham would be able to use it to avoid the Midland Main Line blockage and get to London.
After years of deluding themselves that Meadowhall is the right place for its Sheffield station, HS2 Ltd has finally agreed it should be in the city centre. So passengers from Sheffield would find it as easy to take HS2 as the Midland. But Nottingham’s HS2 station will be in an absurd location beyond the outermost suburbs, a long tram ride from the city centre. And HS2 will avoid Leicester, so it would be no use for passengers between there and Nottingham or Sheffield.
Nor would East Midlands Trains be able to run on HS2 while their own main line was blocked. EMT’s trains have a 125 mph top speed. They could not share a route with HS2’s 225 mph trains.
I have always said that HS2 is designed to add the minimum new connectivity at the maximum cost. Its poor choice of route through the East Midlands is a case in point. HS2 is an absurd, overblown vanity project. Its benefit to cost ratio is so low that there are unlikely to be enough UK investors foolish enough to pay to build it.
George Osborne’s idea was to get Chinese investors to pay for HS2. Fortunately our new Prime Minister has (1) sacked Osborne and (2) a healthy suspicion of Chinese investment in UK infrastructure. I hope that either her “pause” in the decision on Hinkley Point C will offend Chinese investors enough to put them off HS2, or that she herself will finally realise what a gilded folly HS2 is.
BUILD A BETTER-VALUE RAILWAY, NOT HS2
Britain does need another north-south main line railway: not just to meet demand, but to cut road use by attracting more freight and travellers to choose rail. But current UK rail fares are too high, so any new railway must be affordable.
A new main line should also be compatible with existing lines, so that if any main line is blocked its trains can use another line. The GCML could be engineered to a top speed similar to the Midland’s. Trains for either line could be completely compatible to run on the other.
HS2 will cost £60 billion to build, so it cannot promise significantly cheaper rail travel. And its excessive top speed minimises its compatibility with other British main lines.
Instead Britain needs a new north–south main line that is cost-effective to build, well-connected throughout its route, and low-energy. The sooner HS2 is cancelled and a lower-cost new line is built instead, the better it will be for our rail network, economy and environment.
The GCML is a cost-effective, convenient and therefore viable option. Mrs May and her transport ministers should not dismiss it.