12 April 2011

Among all the hype about the new high speed line between London, the Midlands and the North one thing has received less attention. If the second phase of the Y shape line is built, Manchester and Birmingham and Leeds and Birmingham (as well as South Yorkshire and East Midlands) will be much better connected providing that the high speed services actually reach the city centres and are at or adjoining existing rail stations for connectivity. This is vital if the benefits are to be realised. Electrification is coming to the underperforming Liverpool-Manchester route

The rail connections between Britain’s main regional cities remain mainly poor. Slow, unsuitable trains weave their way around trying to do too many things. Frequency is good – a train every half an hour between Manchester and Birmingham for example – but I can’t help thinking that this service is not really an alternative to the car.

Some routes have improved. The London Midland services from Birmingham to Liverpool and other places are much improved and have fast electric trains which are quite comfy. A contrast to the crowded, cramped Cross Country diesel trains from Birmingham to Manchester. An hour and a half journey, lots of people on and off at every station, relatively short trains with a mix of passengers going very long distance and lots of short hoppers. So the ‘Will the seat reservation really be taken up? ’ game is taken to a new high.

Roll on nonstop high quality real intercity services between our major regional cities. The one route that is left without any (credible) serious plans is Manchester – Leeds (0.8 million annual passenger journeys in 2009 and over one million if York is included). This major route needs some long-term thinking as well. Others include Brighton-London (5.8 million), Leicester-Nottingham (1.1 million); Bristol-Cardiff (0.6 million).

It takes just over an hour to drive from the M621 at the edge of Leeds all the way to Liverpool via the M62 on this corridor without exceeding the speed limit. The corresponding ‘Express’ train journey takes around 1h50m by direct service. The cost of car parking at Leeds station is comparable with the fuel cost alone of this journey for a typical reasonably efficient family car.

Should the core Manchester-Leeds-York section which generates the majority of journeys continue to be constrained by any notion of maintaining direct services to the outer reaches of the route? The significantly smaller flows may make justifying electrification more difficult.

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