Page last updated at 20:50 GMT, Wednesday, 25 March 2009

New rail lines 'may be cheaper'

Lord Adonis
Lord Adonis said he would consider the "true cost" of disruption to passengers

Building new high-speed rail lines could be cheaper than upgrading existing track, Transport Minister Lord Adonis has claimed.

Projects like the £8.8bn ($12.8bn) West Coast Main Line upgrade were "highly disruptive and expensive", he said.

Speaking at a rail conference in London, Lord Adonis urged cross-party support for the new high-speed line, which was announced in January.

It will run between London and the West Midlands, and possibly on to Scotland.

Lord Adonis told the conference that £500m ($727m) had been spent solely on compensating train companies that used the West Coast Main Line during its upgrade.

Building from scratch, he said, would not carry this cost, and it was "by no means clear that ostensibly lower-priced upgrades are always better value than new lines including new high-speed lines".

Additionally, he said the government had to take account of "the true cost of the disruption to passengers in services cancelled or diverted year after year".

He continued: "For the future, we need to assess the relative merits, including disruption saved, of building new lines rather than highly disruptive and expensive major upgrades of existing lines."

'Many problems'

The government has formed a company - High Speed 2 (HS2) - to consider the case for new high-speed rail services from London to Scotland. As a first stage, it will proposals for a new line between London and the West Midlands.

But Lord Adonis warned that the London to Folkestone Channel Tunnel rail link - known as HS1 - had arguably been the "most expensive high-speed railways built in the world per mile".

The more network extensions there are, the more cities say: 'Please sir, can we have some more?'
Guillaume Pepy
Chairman, SNCF

As a result, the government would demand "greater efficiency and cost control" from future projects, he told the conference.

But the minister did not discuss the projected line's route, with which BBC transport correspondent Tom Symonds said there were "many problems to resolve".

Our correspondent said that serving Heathrow was a "must", as the government had used HS2 as an "environmental sweetner" for its decision to expand the airport.

But taking the line so far west would mean longer, slower journeys, he added.

A Times newspaper has suggested there might be an interchange near Wormwood Scrubs in west London, where passengers would switch onto the Crossrail line - also scheduled for construction - into London.

"The rail industry doesn't think much of that idea," commented the BBC's Tom Symonds. "Its got to go into Euston," he quoted a senior engineer at the conference as saying.

Guillaume Pepy, the chairman of French rail operator SNCF, told the conference that since the French began building high speed lines since the 80s, a "three hour rule" had been observed.

This suggested that if UK's new line can bring Scottish cities within three hours of London, two-thirds of those travelling between them would go by train, rather than fly, Mr Pepy added.

He said: "The more network extensions there are, the more cities say: 'Please sir, can we have some more?'"

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