Always read between the lines
The media have made much of the announcement of £9bn of investment in the railways that the government made yesterday, which will see a significant amount of new work undertaken to enhance the infrastructure. Of course, given that it is politicians making the announcement, we should always insert a sizeable pinch of salt and look a little more closely at what has actually been promised. Of this £9bn, just over £5bn is to projects that are already under way – essentially what is being said is “we’re not going to cancel them now that they’re under way”. So really this announcement is for a little over £4bn of genuinely new investment. But that doesn’t sound as good as £9bn.
Of course, any new investment is welcome, so let us not get too snippy at the political playing of the media that government spin doctors are wont to do, especially when Tweedledum and Tweedledee need to put on a show of coalition unity following a smattering of recent disharmony. So what precisely are we looking at? Well, electrification forms the foundation of it all, with the flagship plan being the decision (finally) to wire up the Midland Main Line as far as Sheffield, a proposal that has been knocking about for years. We will also see the planned electrification to Cardiff extended to Swansea, again, something that was suggested when the electrification of the GWML was first announced three years ago. Further, a number of additional shorter routes will also see the wires going up, including the route between Southampton and Basingstoke, and the Reading to Basingstoke line, which is the primary freight corridor between the south coast and the West Coast Main Line - this plan will see wires invading the third rail empire of the Southern Region for the first time, and is apparently a toe in the water to the wider conversion of the third rail infrastructure to OHLE.
However, one element that isn’t simply electrification (with the added infrastructure improvements), but is instead brand new build stuff, is the proposal to provide a western link to Heathrow, which would allow passengers from Wales and the South West to access the airport directly by train, rather than having to go into Paddington and come out again. This caught my interest because of the longer term implications that could come from it, in relation to High Speed 2. Back when the first commitments to HS2 were being made by the DfT under Lord Adonis, there was the continual suggestion that it be connected to Heathrow in some fashion, either as a stub branch, or as part of the main route to and from London. It was noted in many areas that putting it on the main route would be a ridiculous notion, as it would add far too much time and inconvenience for the benefit of a minority of passengers. Thankfully, common sense prevailed, and instead the Heathrow connection will be a stub branch. But, at the same time I espoused the idea, which I’m fairly sure I noted in from the Greengauge 21 proposal, that, rather than Heathrow being a destination in itself, it could serve as a through route in a similar way to Schiphol. Greengauge 21′s plan would have seen a new build high speed line built as part of the HS2 project, with Heathrow at one point of a triangular junction, which would then connect to the GWML down to the South West. Rather than doing this though, why not simply upgrade the GWML and provide it with a connection through Heathrow to HS2, in effect turning the GWML into something akin to a “mini-Shinkansen”. Given that it is going to be electrified anyway, and given that HS2 will require so called “classic compatible” trains that will run on both the new high speed and existing railways, in effect, for a fraction of the cost of actually building it from scratch, you could almost have “High Speed 3″, giving Bristol and Cardiff their pre-existing fast services into London, but also giving fast rail connections to the other economic centres further north, without the need to change not just trains, but stations, in London.