It has taken a while for HS2 service plans to focus on Carlisle as the right place to divide and join Glasgow/Edinburgh high-speed train portions. Earlier plans used Carstairs – and left Carlisle with no HS2 London service.

HSR Group wants to see Governments in Westminster and Holyrood work together to deliver as close to a 3-hour London-Glasgow/Edinburgh timing as possible (see HSRG’s publication HSR and Scotland). This can be achieved by a set of investments to increase line-speeds and route capacity.

To get best use out of the enhanced services that will then be possible, and to fully utilise the additional line capacity along the West Coast Main Line, onward rail connectivity is crucial. That’s why we flagged the compatibility with the Borders Railways re-opening from Tweedbank via Hawick to Carlisle in our report. With Carlisle-London journey times reduced to a little over 2 hours, and the Borders Railway fully re-instated, journey times from the Borders towns could be dramatically shortened – to London as well as to other major cities in England. Inward travel for tourists to the Borders region would be dramatically enhanced too.

This is the key synergy between high-speed services being operated over HS2 using enhanced infrastructure northwards from Crewe together with connecting services over the Borders Railway from Carlisle. It’s a genuine network effect, the benefit of which is easily lost when projects are considered in isolation.

There is a second wider benefit to consider as well. The question of the resilience of the national rail network has been thrown into sharp focus by recent extreme weather events. With global warming, these are going to increase in frequency. Inevitably, questions will be asked of the scale and cost of the remedial works that need to be made to Victorian-era railway earthworks.

Network Rail has a programme of works in place and will no doubt be looking to do more to pre-empt embankment and cutting collapses. Where this requires major works, it may well prove a lot more cost-effective to do such work under extended line possessions, with services diverted on to parallel routes. With proper planning, this can be made perfectly acceptable to passengers, provided, of course there is a suitable alternative route available. Step forward a completed Borders Railway, offering an alternative route for Carlisle-Edinburgh journeys.

And there is a third benefit too: railfreight. The works needed for higher passenger train speeds north of Crewe include new cut-offs, junction improvements and, possibly, ‘crawler lanes’ for freight over Shap. Anglo-Scottish railfreight is already a strong market with good growth prospects. It is a vital lifeline for Scottish exports. The market can expect, on the back of investment for high-speed passenger services, more line capacity to accommodate extra freight train paths. But freight consignors crave service dependability. Investing in the rail option has to work, every day, year-round. Having a usable alternative route north of Carlisle to reach the freight terminals in Scotland’s central belt will be a real boost to market confidence in the railfreight sector.

Jim Steer, Director HSR Group,

August 2020