a. Handsacre Link
When HS2 was first announced Phase 1 would connect London with the West Midlands in 2026. Phase 2 to Manchester and Leeds would be completed in 2033. It then seemed a good idea to build a short link, the Handsacre Link near Lichfield, between the end of Phase 1 and the West Coast Main Line, so that HS2 trains could reach Crewe and beyond in 2026, using that line.
In 2014 it was announced that the HS2 line to Crewe would be brought forward six years to 2027 as Phase 2a. That made the Handsacre Link obsolete. Journey times to Crewe and beyond could now be cut and capacity released on the WCML between Lichfield and Crewe, exactly the purposes of HS2. Today, HS2 use of both the Handsacre Link and the WCML still figures in its plans. Why? Now ‘fast’ HS2 trains will hold up faster Pendolinos, using scarce WCML capacity on which to do so. Running HS2 services north out of Stafford on the WCML is pure folly. Below it is argued that HS2 services to Stafford should run via Birmingham and Wolverhampton. The Handsacre Link should be replaced by the 'Meaford Curve', a cost neutral change which will add over £26M annually to passenger benefits and make one major timetable change unnecessary.
When Phase 1, including the Handsacre Link, is completed in 2026 HS2 trains can reach Birmingham on HS2 lines and Crewe and beyond along the WCML. That will entail the introduction of new national, regional and local rail, bus and even some ferry timetables.
A year later, in 2027, Phase 2a links between Lichfield and Crewe and from Whittington towards Derby (see section 6), should be completed. That will require the introduction of another set of national, regional and local rail, bus and some ferry timetables. The year-old Phase 1 HS2 timetable and others which users will have become familiar with will become obsolete.
The introduction, within one year of each other, of two major untested sets of national, regional and other timetables, each containing far reaching changes, does not appear to be an attractive option. The completion of Phase 1 to the West Midlands and taking it into service should be delayed for a year, to coincide in 2027 with the completion of Phase 2a links to Crewe and towards Derby, see section 6, Whittington Link and HS2 northeast here. Then only a single complete rewrite of timetables will be needed. As said above, the Handsacre Link should be replaced by the 'Meaford Curve' to give the WCML timetable writers more paths to use and no slow HS2 trains to shoehorn in.
c. HS2 services to Stafford
After Phase 2a is completed HS2 Ltd will provide two hourly services between London and Liverpool, one fast using the Phase 2a line and one slow using the Handsacre Link and the WCML. On the congested WCML the slow service will run through Colwich Junction (speed limit 45mph), and through the pinch point of the two-track Shugborough tunnel to Stafford. After a stop here it will continue to Crewe and Liverpool on the WCML. Taking that route will result in a journey time 18 minutes longer than the fast service staying on the 2027 Phase 2a line to Crewe, bypassing Stafford.
An hourly service between London and Macclesfield is proposed by HS2, again using the Handsacre Link and the WCML. After a stop at Stafford it will take the WCML ‘slow’ line north via Norton Bridge Junction through Stone (speed limit 25mph!), to reach the eastern arm of the WCML towards Stoke-on-Trent and Macclesfield. Taking that route will result in a journey time 17 minutes longer than a service staying on the Phase 2a line towards Crewe, bypassing Stafford and using the 'Meaford Curve' near Stone, proposed in these pages as a cost neutral replacement of the obsolete Handsacre Link, see section 5, Meaford Curve, Stone and Stoke-on-Trent here.
Fast and direct HS2 services to Liverpool using the Phase 2a line to Crewe and to Stoke-on-Trent and Macclesfield using the 'Meaford Curve' near Stone, are supported. HS2 Ltd promotes slow indirect services via the Handsacre Link and the WCML, stopping at Stafford, regardless of the effect this will have on the 90% of travellers on these services not going from or to Stafford.
Stafford should of course have its HS2 services. But they should not come at the cost of long delays to travellers to or from the Northwest, or by using up scarce capacity on the WCML, or by holding up faster traffic there. Stafford looks to Wolverhampton and Birmingham before it looks to London. Two trains depart Stafford for New Street for every one departing for Euston. Stafford’s HS2 services should therefore run south to London on a faster upgraded track via Wolverhampton and Birmingham. They should terminate at Stafford since further north on the WCML HS2 services would be slower than Pendolino services by 25kph. See more on these proposals in section 2, Curzon Street vs New Street stations here.
Stafford already enjoys the benefits of Network Rail improvements to the WCML at Colwich Junction to the south, and at Norton Bridge to Crewe and Stoke-on-Trent. In addition, with HS2 services replacing classic WCML Pendolino services the 18km WCML spur along the Trent and Mersey Canal between Colwich Junction and Stone, together with 3 level crossings in Stone, could be closed. Stafford would then benefit from further reductions in journey times for classic services through a Colwich Junction without a junction.
d. Costs and Benefits
The 'Meaford Curve' is near mirror image of the Handsacre Link. They cross similar terrain and are of similar length, which should result in similar costs. This means that replacing the Handsacre Link with the 'Meaford Curve' will be cost neutral. But the annual passenger benefits derived from axing the Handsacre Link amounts to more than £26M, £14M for London to Liverpool passengers and £12M for London to Macclesfield passengers. And it will free two paths per hour in each direction on the WCML between Lichfield and Crewe, and the 18km length of the WCML along the Trent and Mersey Canal from Colwich Junction to Stone together with 3 level crossings in Stone could be closed and the track put to leisure use. There would no longer be a need for the 45mph speed limit through Colwich Junction and the journey times of classic services on the WCML through there can be cut.
Since the above was written HS2 has transferred the slow Liverpool service from the WCML to the fast Phase 2a line, thereby gaining an annual £14M of the user benefits which would be derived by axing the Handsacre Link. This action has also released one hourly path on the WCML between Lichfield and Crewe. That leaves the Handsacre Link used by just one service per hour in each direction. An hourly WCML path and a £12M annual user benefit can still be gained by the cost neutral replacement of the Handsacre Link with the Meaford Curve, in addition to the closure of 18km of the WCML and 3 level crossings.
This section last revised 4 September 2019