HS2 and Hope Valley Rail

Scrapping H2S and redirecting funds to the North

Now the froth has gone off last week’s announcements it’s time to take stock and place all in context. 

Rishi Sunak is now admitting that the originally published list of projects to be supported was indicative of the sort of ways in which HS2 funds could be redirected. This blog by Paul Bigland sets it out well; https://paulbigland.blog/2023/10/05/rishi-sunak-hs2-and-the-great-transport-betrayal/

He highlights two projects supposedly to benefit, extensions of the Manchester Metro to the Airport (already completed in 2014) and extension of Nottingham trams to Clifton South (opened in 2015). Many of the items on the list make very little sense. Closer to Sheffield it includes reopening the line from Stocksbridge to Sheffield Victoria and then via Barrow Hill to Chesterfield. (Promoted by some who really want to use it to reopen the Woodhead line to Manchester.) It’s a nostalgic financial black hole of a project.

Electrification of Hope Valley line

Electrification of the Hope Valley line is possible but not on any list of priorities, see later. Bi-modes are the key.

Bear in mind that the average car running on our roads is probably less than 7 years old and those doing the highest mileage less than 5. Commercial vehicles are older but few remain in front line service beyond 15 years so the average on the road is under 10. Each year the engines are cleaner, be they electric or not.

Railway locomotives and multiple units are expected to run in front line service for 30-40 years. Unlike cars they’re still clocking up high mileages quite late in their lives. The HSTs introduced in the late 1970s are only just being retired, although they have had new engines during that time.

The diesel units running on our Hope Valley services are about 3 years old with a design life of 30+ years. Many other routes are still operated by older units some made in the 1980s before our late departed Pacers. Northern is seeking tenders to supply over 500 new units to replace them for introduction in 5-10 years time. The specifications include bi-mode capacity, possible hydrogen options and battery back up for shorter stretches.

Electrification elsewhere

Operator Greater Anglia now has fully electric services on all its mainline routes and bi-modes on the rest – most units working 100% on diesel at present.

The Midland Mainline is being electrified and was supposed to be completed to Sheffield by 2030. Planning for the section through Leicester hasn’t been finalised yet. Good news is that interest in tendering has just been requested for all the work to Sheffield. Recalling how long it has taken to get from that point to completion of the much simpler Hope Valley scheme I can’t see us having a fully electric service to St Pancras before 2035. The key is to use bi-mode trains for longer sections of each journey. East Midland’s first Aurora units were due to enter service in early 2023. They won’t, production is behind schedule. They’ll appear in service in late 2024 but I’m beginning to doubt if they’ll all be in service in 2025.

Some will have heard of the Transpennine Route Upgrade, TRU, to electrify from York to Manchester. Currently there are no detailed plans for electrification of Leeds City station, the 10 mile section from Leeds to Dewsbury including Morley Tunnel, and 18 mile from Huddersfield to Stalybridge including the 3 Standedge Tunnels. (The tunnels are supposedly to be made wider to take larger modern freight trains that currently can’t use any of them, or ours either.)

It’s very doubtful if detailed plans to electrify the Hope Valley route will be made until all these sections are much nearer completion, plus the Midland Mainline to Sheffield – probably well into the 2030s possibly even the 2040s. There are other much easier electrification projects to tackle first – like Hull to Selby over flat terrain. The Great Western scheme to Swansea and Bristol remains incomplete, originally due for completion by 2017. The final parts were cancelled and the routes are operated by bi-mode trains.

Implications for Hope Valley

Bad news on freight traffic electrification generally. Little freight traffic in Britain has been electric hauled but thanks to the high cost of electricity supplied to the railway freight operators are returning that to diesel traction. See; https://www.railfreight.com/railfreight/2023/07/25/db-cargo-uk-grounds-electric-fleet/?gdpr=accept New hybrid locomotives are being trialled but moving loads to and from electrified lines and sidings requires considerable extra weight in a bi, or tri-mode locomotive resulting in lower power output. That means lower speeds and shorter range, but research is ongoing.

Putting it bluntly, they’re struggling to complete MML and TRU electrification so any efforts to push the Hope Valley up the electrification list will get nowhere for at least 10 years. Getting those projects done will be hard enough to achieve.

Breedon will have closed the Hope Valley cement works by 2042 so they will have little relevance in electrification plans. The quarries around Buxton very much will. If the tunnels were blocked for any length of time they’d have to use a massive amount of road transport!

Getting any more stops in the Hope Valley is a hard enough ask when every extra stop may delay a following train. The only station between Sheffield and New Mills that might justify extra stops based on current passenger numbers and local population density is Dore & Totley (incoming passenger numbers help too). So far that has been strongly resisted.

Chicken and egg. Show increasing ridership first. The regular hourly service stopping at all stations only began in December 2022. Since then we’ve had strikes and route closures for the works. Until the April 2024 – March 2025 figures are available we’ll not have strong and reliable passenger numbers to use in evidence – that’s not until December 2025!

I can’t think of anything local transport planners can do to accelerate or change the bigger investment matters, they have no real control, but they’ll always listen and offer platitudes.

I am off to Sussex on Tuesday and will be using a Thameslink service.

Chris Morgan

9 October 2023

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