Very big thinking about very fast trains – an LSE Cities event on High Speed with Sir Terry Farrell

HS2 is on its way. Though the by now familiar arguments will no doubt continue to rage about whether high speed is a ‘good thing’ or not (environmentally, economically and in terms of value for money), this fascinating LSE event mostly parked the ‘in principle’, and HS2 specific arguments, in order to think big thoughts about high speed stations and their implications.

This blogpost is reportage of what was new / interesting to me from Sir  Terry Farrell and the wider debate. It is NOT – repeat NOT – a judgement call on those arguments

HS and ‘continentalisation’

Everyone knows about globalisation, but what HS specialises in is ‘continentalisation’. For example the Euro may be in trouble but – high speed line by high speed line – rail is steadily making national borders less noticeable and relevant.

It’s about the stations not the lines

Beijing South Station

The huge Beijing South Station (photo from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Beijing_South_2032.jpg)

Most debates about HS are about the routes not the stations. But once a line is built it’s the stations that have the economic and city making impact. The global leader (in terms of mileage for sure) on HS is China. China is happy to build vast new stations (Beijing South is now the biggest station in the world) on the periphery of its mega cities in magnificent isolation. For China it’s about the perfect system – the perfect transport hub. It is not about city making.

At the other end of the spectrum is Hong Kong – global leaders at joining commercial developments and transport hubs at the hip. Their major rail hubs have towering office blocks and vast shopping centres above the platforms. Platforms that are paid for by the office blocks and the shopping centres.

The UK has been more Hong Kong than China (or at least in London – and the UK focus of the event was relentlessly London-centric!). Indeed are the big London stations (Waterloo, Victoria and Kings Cross for example) now the town centres of the London Districts they occupy?

Shops at St Pancras

Shops at St Pancras – are big stations the new town centres? (Photo from the Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jun/26/railways-uk-retail-sales-booming-recession)

And if so why not accept it and make the immediate hinterland around them more fit for that purpose? Turning a station from a bad neighbour to a good neighbour. It’s an argument that is perhaps a bit of a stretch – but then again 40 per cent of visitors to St Pancras are not there to catch a train. And to take the argument to the next level, if big stations are town centres perhaps the best model for a station is the trains under the concourse (the New York Grand Central model) so that the focus is on the space, the easy access, people, commerce, shopping – not the kit that got you there?

Old Oak Common – where’s that?

Two miles west of Paddington, development land the size of London’s Victoria Docks and a NIMBY free zone that squats on a nexus of railway junctions. It wouldn’t take much to rewrite the Underground and National Rail and High Speed rail maps around it. All of this could – could – make it the prime location for ‘UK Rail Hub Number One’.

Thinking bigger still – and joining up rail and air policy – fast trains through UK Rail Hub Number One could link in with a HeathrowGatwickLuton airport. Because the thing is London is not actually short of runways – it’s just they are all in different places. So one option is to forget the idea of one mega hub at Heathrow – or the Thames Estuary – and instead use fast trains between the different airports – one big (though geographically dispersed) rail and air interconnect. With Old Oak Common as a European superhub – sweating the connections.

For Farrell it also illustrates a wider point that countries have a choice – either you are a purist and go for the perfect logical system – the new single glossy transport hub (which runs a risk of being out of date, or outmanoeuvred by technological or social change by the time it is completed). For aviation this would mean one massive Heathrow or Thames Estuary airport. Or you are an opportunist and make the most of what you have and adapt. The latter tends to be the British way – but not necessarily a bad thing. It can work very well – if in a sub-optimal way.

Flipping London

Thames Hub airport - artist's impression

Artist’s impression of Thames Hub airport (Photo: Foster and Partners)

Or you can take the other view which is that you do need one single mega international airport. Which in turn could ‘flip’ London. Recently all the big investment has gone east – think Stratford and Docklands. A Thames Hub airport would accelerate the trend. A west London rail hub and/or an expanded Heathrow Hub would flip London back west. Now that is thinking big…

Jonathan Bray