High-speed rail in the United Kingdom

From TrainSpottingWorld, for Rail fans everywhere
No current British domestic high-speed trains are able to operate above 200km/h, however several proposals put forward since construction of the CTRL might have seen trains like this GNER-rented Eurostar operate at its full potential.

Following the successful opening of the first phase of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL) in 2003 there has been much debate in the British national media and specialist rail circles on the merits of constructing further high-speed rail routes in the United Kingdom. The international definition of high-speed rail for new lines is those with a speed of at least 250km/h.

The fastest current UK domestic services operate at 200km/h (125mph) on the West Coast Main Line (WCML), East Coast Main Line (ECML) and Great Western Main Line. Attempts to increase these speeds to 225km/h (140mph) on both the WCML and ECML have failed for various reasons, principally because speeds over 200km/h require in cab signaling. (See the lines' respective articles for further details). However, trains capable of 225km/h will be introduced on domestic services between London and Kent along the CTRL in 2009.

Perhaps because of the continuing growth of high-speed services across continental Europe and the frustrations encountered by domestic rail projects in the UK, there has been a growing movement within industry and latterly government circles for the inclusion of a new north-south line in transport policy.


Attempts to increase the speed of British train services beyond 200km/h (125mph) began in the 1970s with the Advanced Passenger Train project and finally succeeded in the opening of the first phase of the CTRL in 2003. During that time, various aborted projects and reduced scope upgrades have failed to raise line speeds above this target on domestic routes. These issues have been documented extensively elsewhere, however they can be summarised as follows.

British Rail strategy

The Advanced Passenger Train was Britain's first attempt at avoiding building a true high-speed line.

While the Japanese and French decided to build completely new tracks for their respective Shinkansen and TGV high-speed rail systems, British Rail opted instead to develop a train that could tilt into bends to reduce cornering forces on passengers and had a high power-to-weight figure to enable rapid acceleration. The APT project first produced a self-powered gas turbine propelled train, however the 1970s oil crisis caused a rethink in the choice of motive power (as with the prototype TGV) and later pre-production and production APTs were electric units.

Initial experience with the trains was good. The prototype set record speeds on the GWML and Midland Mainline and the production versions vastly reduced journey times on the WCML. However problems with the tilt mechanism, the brakes and bad publicity from journalists and passengers who complained of motion sickness eventually caused the service to be suspended. The APT was withdrawn in the early 1980s.

BR then proceeded to electrify the ECML and ordered a new fleet of Intercity 225 trains in the mid 1980s. These electric trains were capable of 225km/h (140mph) and although not initially equipped to tilt, were designed to be easily upgraded by having trailer profiles that tapered inwards at the top and suitable bogies. Speeds of 225km/h were trialled on the southern, straighter sections of the ECML by using a flashing green aspect on the signals. This indicated it was safe to proceed above 200km/h, however HMRSI eventually ruled that this practice was dangerous and speeds above 200km/h would require in-cab signalling. The 225s were curtailed to 200km/h and have been limited to this speed since.

Meanwhile, internal studies at BR were investigating the case for a new dedicated track, however none of this work is in the public domain.

Channel Tunnel Rail Link

The Pendolino was Britain's second attempt at avoiding building a true high-speed railway. Its immediate success is encouraging proposals for further domestic routes.

The CTRL is the first new mainline railway to be built in the UK for a century. The railway is being constructed by London and Continental Railways. After a lengthy process of route selection and public enquiries in the second half of the 1990s, work got underway on Section 1 from the Channel Tunnel to west of the Medway in 1998 and the line opened in 2003. Section 2, continuing the line to London St Pancras, started soon after Section 1 and is due to open in 2007. Full details of the route are available on the CTRL page.

Section 1 was on time and under budget, Section 2 is forecast to be very close to its original budget. The reduction in jouney times and increase in reliability achieved through the opening of Section 1 has already enabled Eurostar to capture 71% of the total London-Paris market and over 80% of the leisure market. Section 2 is expected to increase these figures further. Additionally, the connections provided to the WCML, MML and ECML by Section 2 may see growth of hitherto marginal markets, by finally allowing Regional Eurostars to operate, at least on the electrified ECML and WCML. Eurostar's chief executive recently stated (see News > Features > Future Insight) that the company believes they can take 50% market share even on 4½ hour journeys, a journey time that would put Birmingham and Yorkshire within reach of mainland Europe.

Market share statistics of Eurostar on London-Paris (and Punctuality):

Sep 06 (Jul-Sep 91.4%) Aug 05 71.03% (Jan-Sep 87%) May 05 69% Aug 04 67.87% (Jan-Dec 84%) Jul 04 65.88% (Jan-Jun 89%) Oct 03 65% Jul 03 60.23% (Jan-Jun 77%)

The eventual start, completion and successful operation of CTRL Section 1 spurred much discussion and several proposals for new lines in the UK and many interested parties are hoping to capitalise on the momentum given to these ideas by the forthcoming completion of the complete CTRL. These proposals are discussed below.

First high-speed line proposals

In 2001, two privately-sponsored proposals were put forward to build high-speed lines in the UK. The first, from Virgin Trains, was part of its tender for the ECML franchise. The second, from First Group, was independent of the DfT / SRA rail franchising process. Both were not welcomed by the government, who in the wake of the Hatfield rail crash, were focussed on - as they saw it - getting the rail network back to reliable operations. There was also a suggestion that at that time, government officials overseeing the railways favoured increased nationalisation of infrastructure rather than allowing the creation of additional track operators, seemingly against the notion of public-private partnerships (PPPs) promoted elsewhere.

Virgin Trains' ECML bid

Virgin's proposed new high-speed line for their failed ECML franchise bid.

When the ECML franchise (then as now operated by GNER) came up for its first renewal, Virgin Trains raised the idea of constructing new track and purchasing a new fleet of trains for the line. (BBC news online article). These so-called VGVs (Virgin Grand Vitesse - after the French TGV) would be capable of 330km/h (205mph) and travel on a mixture of new track and existing track. The new track would be from Peterborough to Yorkshire and on a short stretch from Newcastle to the Scottish border. This first track would have opened in 2009 and was chosen for ease of construction in the south and elimination of severe curves in Northumberland. Later, if successful, further stretches would have been upgraded. Publicity material featuring Virgin branded TGV and ICE trains appeared and it was stated that the stock would be built in Birmingham (implying Alstom would be the supplier), although at that time the only train capable of such speeds was the German ICE3.

Although Virgin teamed up with experienced civil engineering contractors such as Bechtel, their tender was rejected for the reasons outlined in the previous section. There were also issues such as the souring relationship between the SRA and Virgin Trains' other operations and the creation of a monopoly on Anglo-Scottish routes. Sir Richard Branson said he would give up one of their other franchises if necessary.

Nevertheless, the Virgin bid started people thinking about possibilities and showed that multinational companies were prepared to get involved with privately funded UK high-speed rail projects for the first time.

First Group's plans for the GWML corridor

The route of the high-speed line proposed by First.

Around the same time First Great Western, operators of lines west of London, announced a study into a 320km/h (200mph) line from London to Bristol, South West England and South Wales. First sponsored the study and input was given by other stakeholders in the regions to be served.

Journey times from London given included:

  • Swindon 35 mins
  • Bristol Parkway 49 mins
  • Cardiff 70 mins
  • Swansea 120 mins
  • Plymouth 140 mins

Although First stated that this report would be published and given to the SRA and government, little has been heard of the plan since the initial press release. Many at the time felt that First should concentrate on day-to-day running of its services.

(See (Archive of First's press release; BBC news Online article 1 BBC news Online article 2)

Government-commissioned studies

Atkins Option 1
Atkins Option 10

Since the completion of Section 1 of the CTRL, various government departments and ministers have commissioned reports into the viability of high-speed rail. This is in part due to the success of the CTRL project, part due to realisation that upgrades to existing infrastructure offer poor value for money and cannot hope to meet future capacity needs, and part due to increasing environmental concerns over the expansion of the short-haul airline industry.

Atkins study

In 2001, the SRA commissioned Atkins to perform a feasibility study into the transport and business case for high-speed rail. The study, published on 29th October 2004, looked at combinations of 11 routing options to accommodate forecast traffic flows and concluded:

  • New capacity is required to relieve the WCML by 2015
  • Further new capacity will be required to relieve all three north-south routes by 2031
  • Construction of the complete proposed network would cost £33bn, the shortest option £10bn
  • The line would give a cost-benefit ratio of between 1.9 and 2.8 to 1

Furthermore, additional work was done to look at the impact of road user charging, downgrading the enhancements to the ECML, and changes to the Treasury's green book method of assesing project finance. All three areas were found to improve the case for high-speed rail.


Atkins Option 1

The Atkins study proposed a line between London and Stoke-on-Trent, broadly following the existing WCML and using the WCML for onward connection, as its baseline scenario.

Atkins Option 8

The study concluded that new lines should be built each side of the Pennines, with the eastern line continuing to Edinburgh and Glasgow. A branch also serves Heathrow Airport. This is the £33bn "end game" scenario.

Atkins Option 10

Interestingly, the study considered a link between Manchester and Leeds but did not take this forward. No explanation is given for this.

Commission for Integrated Transport

In 2004 the Commission for Integrated Transport commissioned Steer Davis Gleave to produce a report titled High Speed Rail: International Comparisons (full report). The report focused on the reasons why the costs being quoted for UK HSR routes (particularly in Atkins) were high in comparison to other countries, in addition to investigating the business case and transport case for such a network.

The routes studied gave journey times from and to London as follows:

Destination Current Journey Time HSR Journey Time
Birmingham 1h 10m 0h 55m
Manchester 2h 15m 1h 20m
Leeds 2h 05m 1h 25m
Newcastle 2h 50m 2h 00m
Edinburgh 4h 05m 2h 35m
Glasgow 4h 20m 3h 00m

The study gave the following recommendations:

  • That the Government and SRA begin to plan now for High-Speed Rail (HSR) as part of a wider strategy to ease the anticipated capacity constraints on the existing networks. Schemes that appear to offer good value for money should be actively progressed.
  • That costs of HSR projects are closely examined to bring them closer to the lower costs achieved in Europe. They should take account of possible reductions in underlying costs and further cost reductions if the industry structure, safety regulations and the approvals process were reviewed.
  • That the Government examines ways of maximising private sector involvement in HSR. This should take account of the potential impact of any future national road charging scheme on passenger demand and its potential to make private sector investment more attractive.
  • That changes in the appraisal process be considered relating to value of time, economic impact analysis, environmental assessments and risk/optimism bias allowances.
  • Additional capacity will be required by 2015
  • Ways to reduce the currently high cost of new rail infrastructure such as high-speed lines include:
    • Building lines in phases rather than all at once could produce a cost saving of 20%-30%
    • UK project management, planning, design and legal costs can reach 25% of the total cost (compared with 3% on the Spanish Madrid - Lerida line) and could therefore be reduced
  • If these cost savings materialise, then the benefits could outweigh the costs by 3 to 1

Eddington report

British Airways' former chief executive Sir Rod Eddington reported on future transport strategy in November 2006. The report covered all transport modes, but had been expected to strongly recommend investment in high-speed rail. However, this does not appear to be the case. (Please could someone read the paper and summarize relevant parts here?)

Technology choices

Any operators of a new high-speed route are faced with a decision on which technology to use. There are two alternative technically viable but incompatible propulsion technologies available to allow speeds of over 200mph: Wheel-on-rail (high-speed but essentially traditional railway trains) and magnetic levitation or maglev trains. Both systems have variants outlined below.


The Siemens Velaro family represent the state-of-the-art in conventional rail technology.

Most high-speed systems in use in the world today use highly developed but otherwise traditional rail technology, designed to operate at 300km/h or higher speeds. All railways operating at these speeds on a regular basis use electric traction, although onboard power generation has been considered in the past. For full details of this type of traction can be seen on the High Speed Rail page.

There are various train architectures in use: Articulated rakes of coaches have been used by Alstom for the TGV, Eurostar and derivatives of these trains and more recently with the Bombardier Talgo AVE S-102. Meanwhile Siemens and Japanese manufacturers of the Shinkansen have promoted non-articulated multiple unit designs with the Velaro, ICE 3 and bullet trains. More recently, Alstom have combined the benefits of both with the AGV.


Transrapid is the world's only production ready high-speed maglev train.

Magnetic Levitation trains dispense with wheels and are lifted and propelled by magnetic fields. Two high-speed systems are either being deployed or close to being deployed worldwide: The German Transrapid system has been deployed in Shanghai as an airport transit system and is likely to be extended into a full intercity system by connecting with Hangzhou for the 2010 Expo. The system has been open since 2004 and until recently has performed flawlessly.

A second Transrapid line is planned in Germany, connecting Munich's Airport with its central railway station in 10 minutes. Other lines are planned in the USA, The Netherlands and elsewhere in the world. A group called UK Ultraspeed is promoting such a line in the UK.

The other main Maglev technology that is close to deployment is in Japan, where an alternative and incompatible system to Transrapid has been developed. This line uses cooled, superconducting magnets to improve efficiency and currently holds the Maglev speed record of 581 km/h. Eventually the Japanese would like to extend their experimental Miyazaki line into a full link between Tokyo and Osaka.


Route choices

UK Ultraspeed proposes a single S-shaped line connecting Heathrow and Stratford in London with Birmingham, Manchester Airport, Liverpool Airport, Sheffield, Leeds, Teeside, Tyneside, Edinburgh and Glasgow. The promoters argue that only the speed of maglev allows a route connecting so many cities.
An alternative theoretical route connecting Heathrow and Central London with Luton, Milton Keynes, Northampton, then north to Leicester, Nottingham, Sheffield and Leeds before continuing to Tyneside, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Note this misses Teeside. Branches serve Birmingham and Manchester/Liverpool. This route totals 634km along the core.
The final network on the North-South axis would bring rapid journey times to all cities linked in the previous two proposed routes.

The promoters of both wheel-on-rail and maglev systems in the UK, and the technology agnostic studies that have been commissioned by government departments and third parties have concentrated on the North-South axis of the UK for the first route. There is some disagreement on whether a single central route, both west and east coast routes or a single S-shaped route taking in the major population centres as proposed by maglev promoters should be constructed first.

All studies have argued that a hub at Heathrow Airport would be desirable as both an interchange for air services and local rail services to the west and south of London. The Atkins study has identified routes to the West Midlands, Liverpool and Manchester as being capacity constrained by 2015 and this is almost certainly where the first HSL will be required. Atkins also recommended having two routes, one each side of the Pennines. The study recommends against a trunk and branch structure.

The Maglev option promoted by UK Ultraspeed takes a route from Manchester, directly across the Pennines to Leeds, with a branch to Sheffield, before heading north east to Teeside and Tyneside then north to Edinburgh and Glasgow. The Atkins study includes a trans-Pennine option, but puts more emphasis on a line through the East Midlands to Sheffield, Leeds and north on a similar trajectory to that of the maglev. None of the routes passes through the Lake District en route to Glasgow.

Use of existing infrastructure

The advantage of conventional wheel-on-rail technology is that it can use existing infrastructure to access city centres. So far, the studies have stopped short of recommending a London terminus, but it is generally assumed that it would be at or close to the CTRL station at St Pancras. Indeed, it is assumed that the new railway would interface directly with the CTRL to allow through running. Nevertheless, the new railway will most likely be built to the larger continental loading gauge - just as with the CTRL - so access to city centre stations over existing lines will require structures on the route to be altered and therefore negate some of the advantage conventional technology has in this respect.

The UK Ultraspeed proposal does not envisage a Central London terminus at all, but instead proposes stations at Heathrow and Stratford. The latter would offer direct connections with Eurostar and both terminals would connect to the city centre via Crossrail. The route from Stratford would follow the Lea Valley and meet the Heathrow branch at a parkway station by the M25 on the north side of London. UK Ultraspeed argues that this gives direct access to more relevant locations in and around London than a single terminus at or near the Euston Road.

Direct vs maximum intermediate population coverage

The maps to the right show that a route taking in many of the major cities along the UK Ultraspeed route - crossing the Pennines and maximising the number of journey options possible with a single train - would total exactly 700km. A route taking a line east of the Pennines, missing Birmingham and Manchester but including Leicester, Nottingham and Sheffield, would total 634km along the core. By comparison, today's WCML is 642km end-to-end.

Taking the new Madrid to Barcelona high-speed line as an example of the state-of-the-art, the trains available for a conventional UK high-speed line would be capable of 350km/h. The Spanish line is 600km long with an advertised journey time of 2½ hours, giving an average speed of 240km/h. Therefore, the time penalty incurred by routing the line via Birmingham and Manchester could be expected to be approximately 15 minutes for Leeds and points north. Glasgow would still be under 3 hours from London. In contrast, UK Ultraspeed claim an end-to-end journey time of 2 hours 35 minutes, however passengers wishing to access Central London would need to take a Crossrail journey of at least 15 minutes and change trains. UK Ultraspeed's claim to offer the only technology capable of giving short journey times and include so many intermediate destinations is slightly dubious.

What must also be considered is that in order to provide services to Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, considerable length of branches are required. Therefore, despite the direct "East of the Pennines" route having a shorter core length, overall the amount of extra track required is three times that of the additional core length of the "S" option that takes in Birmingham and Manchester directly. These branches come to an additional 200km of route, as opposed to the 66km outlined above. The option still requires a traversal of the Pennines.

Interestingly, the additional route length involved in the "S" option is nearly identical to that incurred by Eurostar trains, which are routed through Lille on their way from London to Paris. The detour adds approximately 65km to that journey, yet timings remain competitive with air and Eurostar enjoys significant market share. It is only now, 15 years after the construction of the LGV Nord that discussions of a proposed direct line, the LGV Barreau Picard, are taking place.

In conclusion, it is difficult to see why an East Pennines route would be chosen in the first instance. The acknowledged need for capacity is to the North West and from there it is only an additional 60km across the Pennines to the large market of Leeds and the significant population of the North East. Such a line would bring much needed relief to the M62. The Pennines have been seen as a barrier to fast rail services, but the experience of the Cologne to Frankfurt ICE line and the tunnelling skills developed during the construction of the CTRL should mean that modern high-speed trains and their tracks would make light work of this barrier. Later on, when the market has been established, initial costs amortised and capacity limits on Midland Mainline are reached, a more direct high-speed line could be added between Leeds and Northampton bringing Sheffield, Nottingham and Leicester onto the network. Such a phased approach would lower risks and capital requirements from the line's investors, while bringing benefits to as many people as possible in the first phase. This route, shown to the right, now resembles the Atkins Option 10 and is likely to be the final viable high-speed network on the North-South axis.

HSR promoters

The recent interest in high-speed rail generated by the success of the CTRL has lead to the formation of several companies and non-profit groups aiming to further the construction of domestic high-speed lines in the UK. The principle groups are:


Greengauge21 is a non-profit group aiming to establish conventional high-speed wheel-on-rail technology as the mode of choice for new lines. The group has performed studies on routing, environmental issues and the use of high-speed rail as an alternative to short haul airlines.

The group's website is http://www.greengauge21.net/

UK Ultraspeed

UK Ultraspeed is a company that has been formed to promote Transrapid magnetic levitation trains as the basis for a UK network. It works closely with Transrapid itself to keep maglev at the forefront of discussions in the government and media and is performing feasibility studies for a UK route.

UK Ultraspeed website: http://www.500kmh.com

Transrapid website: http://www.maglev.com

Institution of Civil Engineers

The Institution of Civil Engineers has performed its own study into UK high-speed rail and recently organised a conference on the subject. Information on their work can be found at the following links:

ICE study news release: http://www.ice.org.uk/news_events/newsdetail_ice.asp?NewsID=632&NewsType=ICE&FacultyID=

ICE study brochure: http://www.ice.org.uk/downloads//missing%20link%20brochure_.pdf

ICE conference: http://www.ice.org.uk/news_events/eventdetail_ice.asp?EventID=1702&EventType=ICE&FacultyID=

BBC News article: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/4982770.stm

Recent developments

It was reported on the August 6, 2006 that London and Continental Railways are to put forward a high-speed rail scheme to the Department for Transport this autumn. Their scheme would cost between £12 billion and £19 billion depending on the route chosen. The timing of this will depend on the release of the Eddington Report described above. (Mail on Sunday). On 29 August 2006 The Times reported that Sir Rod Eddington will now recommend in his strategic transport review that given a limited transport budget, a high-speed rail link is not the best option. (Times Online)

High-speed rail
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High-speed trains: Acela ExpressAdvanced Passenger TrainAVEChina Railway High-speedEurostarInterCity 225InterCityExpressJR-Maglev MLX01HSTHSR-350xKorea Train ExpressMagnetic levitation trainsPendolinoShinkansenTGVThalysTransrapidTreno Alta VelocitàX2000

High-speed lines: Beijing-TianjinCTRL (London-Channel Tunnel)Cologne-AachenCologne-Frankfurt
French LGV linesHanover-WürzburgNortheast Corridor (Boston-Washington DC)Nuremberg-IngolstadtHSL 1 (Brussels-Paris)
HSL 2 (Leuven-Ans)HSL 3 (Liège-Aachen)HSL 4 (Brussels-Netherlands)HSL-Zuid (Netherlands)
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