Wednesday, December 18, 2002

Harry Potter and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link

When you read the Harry Potter books, you discover that the Hogwarts Express departs from King's Cross station in London from Platform nine and three quarters, which you can find if you magically walk between a barrier between platforms nine and ten. However, it is clear that J.K. Rowling did not actually look very carefully at King's Cross station before writing this. Kings Cross station contains is divided into two parts: platforms 1 to 8 are in a single large shed, and platforms 9 to 11 are in another smaller shed off the side. Trains going up the East Coast Main Line (to Peterborough, Durham, Newcastle, and Edinburgh) go from the main shed, and smaller more local trains to East Anglia go from the smaller shed to the side. (The main destination served from platform 9 in this smaller shed is Cambridge, so those of us who have studied there find the Harry Potter Books to be slighty amusing for this reason). This section of the station is in no way spectacular, which is why the makers of the Harry Potter movies filmed the inside of the main station, rather than the real platforms 9 and 10. This may not be too unrealistic, however, as wherever Hogwarts is meant to be, I really do not think it is in East Anglia.

(It has been claimed that J.K. Rowling was even further mixed up when she wrote the books, and that she was actually thinking of Euston station rather than Kings Cross. Euston is the terminus for the West Coast Main Line, and is where you go from if you want to go from London to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool or Glasgow).

In any event, Kings Cross Station was built by the Great Northern Railway in 1851-2, and from an architectural point of view, the station is rather drab and utilitarian. It works fine, and looks okay from the inside, but is nothing much to photograph from the outside.

This is why, in the second Harry Potter movie, when the film-makers decided to show some outside shots of "Kings Cross Station" they instead showed outside shots of nearby St Pancras Station . St Pancras station is right next to Kings Cross station, and is the terminal station for the Midland Main Line. This is where you depart London from Nottingham and Sheffield. St Pancras Station is the most spectacular railway station in London. Its was built in 1863-74, and its main shed is one of the largest enclosed spaces in London, and the front of the station consists of a spectacular gothic facade, part of which encloses St Pancras Chambers once a beautiful hotel, but now run down and not used for anything.

And, curiously enough, St Pancras Station is not used for very many trains either. It was never as important a destination as Kings Cross or Euston, and there was even a proposal in the 1950s to close and demolish it. In 1989, many of the shorter distance services on the Midland Main Line were diverted from St Pancras through a disused 19th century tunnel through the middle of London to connect with South London services to either Brighton or Wimbledon. This scheme was known as Thameslink, and it reduced the number of trains terminating at St Pancras still further.

As you undoubtedly know, in the 1980s and early 1990s, a tunnel was built under the English channel. Whereas the French decided right from the beginning to build a high-speed TGV line from Paris to the tunnel, the British decided to defer this to the future, and instead route trains from Paris along existing train lines into an existing London station. However, none of the existing southern stations had enough spare platforms for the trains from Paris, and none of the existing stations contained train sheds that were long enough to house the 20+ carriage trains. Therefore, an extension to Waterloo station was built providing new (and much longer) platforms for the trains to Paris and Brussels. When the Channel Tunnel was opened in 1994, Eurostar Services from Paris and London came into this new Waterloo international station. (The French were not particularly amused about trains from Paris going to Waterloo). Comments were made about eventually building a high speed TGV line from the tunnel to London, and the general expectation was that such a line would be built eventually but not soon.

At the time of the opening, President Mitterand of France made some remarks about how travellers would speed with modern efficiency through France and then ease slowly down 19th century English railways into London. One English minister (I forget who) responded by making a comment about how the Kent countryside that passengers would be going through was a lovely part of England and the passengers would enjoy the view. While this is entirely true, this sounded feeble even to the Major government, and it was then decided that a modern high-speed railway would be built from the channel tunnel to central London.

Now, this reopened the question of how the channel tunnel trains should come into London. Clearly there was no space above ground for a new railway line into central London, so most of the final approach into London had to be underground. Once we knew this, then a variety of options were opened up. The simplest was to just build a tunnel into Waterloo, and use the existing Waterloo International terminal. The advantage of this was that the station had been built. The disadvantage was that once trains had arrived in Waterloo, it was difficult for them to go anywhere else. Plus, the government wanted the new line to go through as many places as possible where the government was trying to ensure that urban regeneration would occur. Two big places where this was so were East London, and the former industrial areas of Kent south of the Thames. Wouldn't it be great if we could bring the new railway through these areas, build stations in these areas, and so help the urban regeneration.

For these stated reasons, a proposal (follow this link for a map and more details) was eventually approved to build the line through the regeneration areas of western Kent and also east London. Additional stations were to be built at Ebbsfleet and Ashford in Kent and Stratford in east London, and hopefully the areas around these stations would get an economic boost. And as for the London terminal, the decision was to use the presently underused station at St Pancras. This station would need to be extended in length in order that the Eurostar trains would fit, and new platforms would also need to be built in order that there would be enough space for new domestic trains (using the new high speed line) from Kent to also fit in the station.

This proposal is now being built. The first stage of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL) (costing 1.9 billion pounds) will open in 2003. This will include the above ground section of the line from the Channel Tunnel to the outskirts of London, from which for the next three years trains will then use existing lines to get to Waterloo. After that, the tunnel into London (costing 3.2 billion pounds, for a total project total of 5.2 billion pounds) will be completed, and services will come into a refurbished St Pancras. The grand old hotel in St Pancras Chambers will be refurbished, and will once again be a fine hotel (plus some private apartments). St Pancras, rather than just receiving a few trains from the Midlands, will be receiving services from the Midlands, Kent, and continental Europe. The most beautiful station in London will quite possibly also be the most important station in London.

(There is also a proposal on the cards (Thameslink 2000) which would see most of the shorter distance East Anglia services that presently terminate a Kings Cross instead stop at a new underground station at St Pancras before going through an upgraded Thameslink tunnel and coming out in south London, before continuing to Surrey and Sussex and other parts of Kent. This would raise the importance of St Pancras even further).

The above is the story that the railway engineers sold to the government. It is a good story, and the project so far is coming in on time and on budget. Rather than reinventing the wheel, the contractors are simply using existing French technology (and in a lot of cases experienced French subcontractors) to build the CTRL.

This is the story that we have been told so far. However, there is one issue about this that has bothered me a little. And that is, why is a huge station being built at Stratford in East London. The argument that building this station will aid development in east London sounds good, but isn't actually convincing. For high speed rail, the key issue is journey time. You are competing with air travel, and you must keep the total journey time below three hours at all costs, and if possible you want it significantly lower than this. And for a train travelling at 300 km/h, extra stops are extremely expensive in terms of time. The train must drop from 300 km/h to zero, stop for a minute or two, and then accelerate back to 300km/h. You really do not want two stops close together. A stop at Stratford before St Pancras is going to add 10 minutes to the journey time. Given that 5 billion pounds has been spent to cut the whole journey time to Paris by 45 minutes, then giving up a quarter of this time through an extra stop seems silly. If you listen to what the train operators are saying carefully enough, it is clear that they do not expect many trains to stop at Stratford.

So, what is happening? I think the key is that trains come into London, then they go through Stratford, then the line has goes through junctions allowing trans to be diverted to either the East or West Coast main lines, and then go into St Pancras. In theory, it would be possible for the trains to go up the ECML to Newcastle and Edinburgh, or up the WCML to Birmingham and Manchester. If trains were to do this, Stratford would be the London stop for through trains (in the same way that the station at Charles De Gaul airport in Paris is the stop for trains going from Lille to Lyon). However, this does not appear to have much potential, because although the ECML is fairly modern and can manage trains at 200km/h, there are no major destinations up that line until you get to Leeds and Newcastle, and Leeds to Paris is going to take well over three hours. Similar issues are also true for the WCML, and even services to Birmingham are going to take too long to be justifiable.

However, think about the situation. The CTRL is going to be Britain's first high speed rail line. If it is successful, the whole corridor between London and the tunnel and between the tunnel and Lille and Paris, is likely to be economically revitalised by it. If it is a big success, then another fact becomes obvious: the London/Kent corridor actually was not the obvious place to build a fast rail line in the UK. Traffic on this route is less and will always be less than traffic between London and the major cities of the Midlands: Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool. If the case is made for fast rail in the UK, then the case is extremely strong for a link from London to those cities. If this is done properly, then even London-Liverpool is less than an hour. Link this up with the CTRL, and Liverpool-Paris and Liverpool-Brussels come in at about three hours, the time at which fast rail becomes competitive.

Here is the issue: what the Stratford station and the north-east approach to London are actually about is building the station and the necessary links for the next fast rail line in England. Different reasons were made up to convince the government, because the government didn't want to hear grandiose future proposals for now. However, the people who designed this project knew what they were doing.

Get this right, and assuming that lines under construction in other countries are completed, and such long distance train routes as Liverpool-Manchester-Birmingham-London-Lille-Paris-Lyon-Marseilles, Liverpool-Manchester-Birmingham-London-Lille-Brussels-Antwerp-Rotterdam-Amsterdam and Liverpool-Manchester-Birmingham-London-Lille-Brussels-Cologne become possible (and maybe on to Frankfurt and other German cities if technical incompatibilities of French and German trains can (This will perhaps not be quite as useful trains between the string of cities in Japan from Tokyo to Nagasaki, but it would still be quite impressive) Railways respond to network effects. Extend them so they contain a lot of city pairs, and they are much more valuable than if they just connect two points. Building a fast rail line to the midlands would thus be very valuable.

Building such a line is not on the cards at the moment, of course. The government is presently horrified that the cost of a plan to upgrade the West Coast Main Line to something fairly but not very modern has blown out from 2.5 million to 13 million pounds, due to huge incompetence. (You could have easily built the new high speed line for that). This is the odd thing about infrastructure construction in the UK. Sometimes it is done right. The CTRL is an example of this. The rest of the time, though, it is done astoundingly badly. There seems middle ground. However, if passenger numbers on the railways continue increasing, and if the CTRL is a big success, then in ten years time, all will likely be forgotten. At that point, building it will be relatively easy, as the London links are in place. And maybe it will then be possible to get a direct service from Hogwarts to Beauxbaton.

Update: It has been pointed out to me that Manchester and Liverpool do not count as "The Midlands". (Forgive me, as I am a foreigner. I will not make that mistake again). If anyone from Manchester, Liverpool, or the actual Midlands is offended, I apologise. Still, I stand by my position that the corridor from London through Birmingham to Manchester and Liverpool has potential for a high speed rail line.

Further Update: Stephen Karlson informs us that the locomotive pulling the Hogwarts Express does not fit the loading gauge for the lines out of King's Cross (that is, the train is too high and/or too wide, and is going to crash into bridges, platforms etc).

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