Saturday, 8 January 2011

HS2 – London to Birmingham route

Planning lawyers (and especially members of the planning bar) are licking their lips at the thought of all the litigation and other legal procedures that are going to arise from the proposed London - Birmingham high speed rail route.

Attention is currently focused on the precise details of the preferred route, and the slight adjustments which the government has made to that route, and it is no surprise that much heat is being generated over this. Although I now live a long way from the affected area, I am familiar with its geography, having once worked in that part of the world.

It occurred to me some time ago that a high speed route could be based on the existing Paddington to Birmingham main line, which follows an almost straight line (with very little curvature) as far as Seer Green, before beginning to twist and curve its way up through the Chilterns, snaking through High Wycombe and on up to the Risborough Gap. On reaching Princes Risborough, the line resumes an almost straight course across the Vale of Aylesbury in the direction of Birmingham, and if you join up the two points on the map where the line deviates from its direct course near Seer Green and at Risborough, so as to form a straight line, this would produce an almost straight route all the way from London to North Oxfordshire, with comparatively modest curvature between there and Birmingham.

This would, of course, involve driving a tunnel through the chalk under the Chilterns similar to the Channel Tunnel and about half its length - roughly 18 kilometres - and this might well make ‘the tunnel route’ (as it might be called) impossibly expensive. Both ends of the tunnel would in fact be at the same height above sea level, so the tunnel would not only be straight but also entirely level throughout its length, and bearing in mind that some 8km of tunnelling is already proposed on the preferred route, the cost of a further 10km might not be so much more expensive than all the hassle and compulsory purchase procedures involved in forcing through the currently intended route.

The existing line would have to be widened between South Ruislip and Seer Green to accommodate commuter trains using existing tracks alongside the new line, but the stations on this line were so designed as to enable the fast lines to pass through the middle of the station while commuter trains serve the platforms on the outside. So it is all perfectly feasible in engineering terms, and it would only be issues of cost and any possible geological objections to boring a deep tunnel through the chalk under the Chilterns that would appear to militate against this ‘tunnel route’. Someone must surely have suggested it already, but I have not found any reference to it.

This may be slightly off-topic in a planning law commentary, but it was the prospect of all those legal fees that set off this particular train of thought, and so it is perhaps relevant from that point of view. In practice, I don’t suppose anybody will take this suggestion seriously, and so we need not lose any sleep over the possible loss of legal fees that might follow from the adoption of a less controversial route.


[Update: The preferred route does follow the line suggested above as far as West Ruislip, but then turns gradually away from the existing railway line to take a more northerly route past the Chalfonts and on towards Amersham. Route 2.5 would have continued on or close to the line of the existing railway through Gerrards Cross, Beaconsfield and Seer Green, but would then have continued across country towards Hazlemere. It is at Seer Green that the ‘tunnel route’ (suggested in the post above) would enter an 18km tunnel, emerging beyond Princes Risborough on the line of the existing London to Birmingham railway line. The preferred route passes close to Wendover and Aylesbury, whereas route 2.5 would have regained the original London to Birmingham rail route near Haddenham. Thus the ‘tunnel route’ suggested in the post above is in effect a variant on Route 2.5, taking a straight and level line by tunnel between Seer Green and Princes Risborough, but otherwise following the existing rail route more closely. Admittedly, the new line would not fit within the existing station layouts in quite the way I had suggested, but it still makes sense to follow the established transport corridor so far as possible.]


  1. How is this a planning issue when the government intends to seek the relevant powers by way of a hybrid act of parliament?

    It is the public law barristers who are in your words "licking their lips".

  2. The ‘public law barristers’ are one and the same group of people as the planning bar. It is a long-standing specialist area of practice at the bar, and these specialists were originally known as the ‘parliamentary bar’ in the days when major infrastructure projects, such as canals, railways and docks, were promoted by means of private Acts of Parliament. Solicitors such as myself who also specialise in ‘planning law’ cover broadly the same area of work which extends somewhat beyond the narrow confines of town and country planning, to include highways and public rights of way, compulsory purchase and compensation, various other aspects of major infrastructure projects, and other areas of public and administrative law, including judicial review.

  3. Just to update further what I wrote above -

    Hansard 10 Jan 2012, col 33:

    Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): I was delighted to hear that additional protections for the Chilterns will reduce costs. Will the Secretary of State consider tunnelling the entire width of the Chilterns?

    Justine Greening: Yes, I did that. That approach would have cost £1.2 billion and I believe it is unaffordable.