Could HS2 trains continue to Wales?

North Wales business group Growth Track 360 has recently renewed its calls for electrification of the North Wales Main Line to accommodate HS2 trains. The group is pushing for electrification of the North Wales Main Line to Crewe and Warrington, which would allow HS2 trains to run directly from London and Birmingham to Chester and beyond. It has also commissioned a series of conceptual artworks to help the public visualise the proposed improvements.

Produced by Nataliia Marchuk, a Ukrainian Fine Arts undergraduate at the University of Chester, the first shows an HS2 train passing Conwy Castle on an electrified North Wales Main Line (below).

Technical challenges to electrification are understood to include the Britannia Bridge across the Menai Strait between the island of Anglesey and the mainland of Wales (due to utilities which share the track bed); listed Victorian tunnels; and re-signalling west of Llandudno Junction.  Some level crossing and platform works would also be required. The full cost of the project was estimated at GBP750M several years ago, and industry insiders have recommended discontinuous electrification as a possible solution to some of these challenges. This involves leaving gaps in the overhead line equipment where non-compliant structures exist, and using on-board energy storage systems to power trains across these gaps.

When the HS2 Crewe to Manchester Bill was introduced to Parliament, Growth Track 360 said that “were electrification of the Chester and North Wales Main Line to coincide with completion of HS2 to Crewe, it would be possible to introduce direct, electric, high-speed services over this route at the same time”. The group added: “Simultaneous electrification between Chester and Warrington would transform connectivity with Manchester and its airport given the government’s declared plans to restore the low-level platforms at Warrington Bank Quay station as part of the Northern Powerhouse Rail proposals.” Independent rail consultant William Barter said that as long as the electrification proves possible, in terms of train services the plan is feasible.

“The plan at the moment has two Liverpool trains per hour, one of which drops a portion to Lancaster and Crewe,” he explained. “You could devise a scheme where the other one dropped a portion to go on to Chester and North Wales. So it’s feasible with electrification – whether it’s justifiable or not, I don’t know.” North Wales Main Line improvements have already been mooted in Sir Peter Hendy’s Union Connectivity Review, which recommended a multimodal review of the North Wales transport corridor and development of a package of improvements focused on the North Wales Main Line, the A55, the M53, M56, and onward travel to and from the island of Ireland.

Suggested improvements for the North Wales Main Line included better connectivity with HS2 and electrification, which would also bring carbon reduction benefits. The Union Connectivity Review also notes that several different infrastructure schemes are already in development on the North Wales corridor. To date, these have been developed independently from each other, and the review suggests that a more multi-modal approach would help decide the best way to address the strategic needs of the corridor.

Similarly, Barter added that his “slight worry” with running HS2 trains to Wales would be the impact on the planned remaining conventional service between Chester, North Wales and Euston via Crewe, Rugby and Milton Keynes. “If an HS2 service took off so much traffic that that train became unviable that means stations like Watford, Milton Keynes and Rugby would lose their fast plug in to Crewe and all the other connections there so commercially there’s quite a lot to think through,” he said. “But as long as you can electrify it’s technically possible and you can envisage train service plans that actually did it.”

Railway engineer and writer Gareth Dennis also feels the proposal is feasible. “There are always challenges, but now that we have voltage-controlled clearance solutions – for example, surge arrestors as used at Cardiff Intersection Bridge – then I don’t think anything along that line is a showstopper. “If you then fully electrify that line, you’d just need to ensure signalling worked with the new trains and that anywhere the trains intended to stop had long enough platforms.

Both Bangor and Holyhead have long enough platforms for a 200m train.” Growth Track 360 chair and Cheshire West & Chester Council leader councillor Louise Gittins said that following the local elections and with new railway legislation to be launched by the UK government in the Queen’s Speech, “now is the time” to bring forward the investment programme needed to support the cross-border region. Growth Track 360 business representative and North Wales Mersey Dee Business Council chief executive Ashley Rogers added: “As we strive for a sustainable, net zero carbon future along with economic recovery from the pandemic, it is critical for the UK government to release the funds necessary to accelerate the long overdue investment programme for our region’s rail infrastructure network.”

Transport for Wales and Growth Track 360 have already been developing plans for a multi modal North Wales Metro and improvements to the North Wales Main Line, including line speed and capacity improvements as well as upgrades between Wrexham, Bidston and Liverpool, enhancements to Chester station and a Crewe hub interface to maximise the benefits of HS2.

Other key objectives for Growth Track 360 are the transformation of the Wrexham-Bidston line to permit direct running of metro frequency trains from Wales into Liverpool city centre, along with a new station at Deeside Industrial Park; and modernisation of Chester station as the gateway for tourism and commerce to Cheshire and North Wales.

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