Wednesday 2 June 2021
In 2018, I was travelling the length and breadth of the country undertaking stakeholder consultation for one of the bidders for the West Coast franchise. Many of the consultations were one and the same – trains running on time, more luggage space, cheaper fares and less-smelly toilets. But my trip to the Marches Rail Group in Shrewsbury was memorable. Shrewsbury was barely connected to the West Coast mainline – with only two London trains a day. The group’s ask was simple – an hourly service which connected well to the many essential rural services that arrived in Shrewsbury from other parts of Shropshire, the Heart of Wales Line and the Cambrian Line. They talked passionately about the difference it would make to their communities, the opportunities it would provide and the economic growth it would lead to. For me, it was a perfect example of what we now all know as ‘Levelling Up’ – and how well-planned rail connectivity really can help to achieve it.
Roll on 18 months and I’m leading on Midlands Connect’s plans to increase linespeed and capacity on the Marches Line between Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Shrewsbury – a slightly different question, with the same long-term outcome: how can rail stimulate economic growth in the Marches? The findings have led to the ‘Rails to Recovery’ report published today, indicating a good business case for investing in the corridor and delivering that hourly London train that stakeholders so aspire to.
It is not always the case that corridor studies such as this have strong business cases, so why does this one stand out, and what has the project to date had to consider to get it into that position? One of the natural advantages of this corridor is high existing patronage – including large economic centres in their own right such as Wolverhampton, Wellington and Telford – all of which are proposed to achieve their holy grail of improved connectivity to London. The analytical methods we use at this early stage are better suited to corridors where existing flows are higher – simply because there is data to base future growth on. Anchoring to Birmingham and London also helps, as these cities drive higher patronage and revenue. The corridor is anticipated to benefit significantly from HS2 and the released capacity it brings. In fact, this is the enabler for the hourly direct London-Shrewsbury service for which there is simply no space on the corridor between Birmingham and Wolverhampton in the present timetable.
As well as maximising the benefits, the development of the scheme has focused on providing a proportionate engineering solution that keeps capital costs down. A starting point for the consultant team was to look for locations where linespeed could be increased with minimal infrastructure upgrades. From there, we used an iterative process between engineers and rail planners to apply linespeed uplifts through track realignment only where we could demonstrate benefit to journey times. For example, on the 50mph section of line near Wellington Station, no benefit would be accrued by raising the linespeed. The outcome of this process was less than 2km of track slue (moving the full rail alignment sideways) being seen as needed, alongside longer lengths of re-canting (lifting or lowering one rail to improve cornering speed) which is cheaper. This also reduces the impact on signalling and structures.
A further aspect of cost reduction is through the ongoing running cost – known as OPEX – which we tested through our electrification scenario. Electrified trains, as well as being zero emission, have significantly lower running costs than their diesel counterparts, so in the long run, the case for electrification on this route is really strong.
There is a long way to go yet, but the opportunity for Levelling Up in the Marches through improved rail connectivity is ever-apparent. With net-zero credentials on the horizon too, we’re excited about the next stages of this project.
Karen Heppenstall is Head of Rail at Midlands Connect
Sophie Zumbe, External Affairs