New conundrums at Old Oak Common

Old Oak Common is one of the chunky, expensive elements of the HS2 project, coming in at around £1.7 billion. At first glance, it looks very attractive – a key interchange between the new railway and the Elizabeth Line, Heathrow Express and the Great Western Main Line. However, not all aspects of the plan stand up to scrutiny.

The Elizabeth Line connection is clearly vital. The interchange will relieve serious potential over-crowding at Euston and the Underground lines from there, which before the pandemic were already operating at maximum capacity at peak periods. It wasn’t uncommon to have to wait for the second or third southbound Victoria Line train in the morning peak before being able to force your way on, and even now it’s still very busy. In contrast, there will be up to 24 high capacity trains an hour from Old Oak Common into central London on the Elizabeth Line. 

Some of those will be busy with passengers from stations west of Old Oak Common, starting from Reading, Maidenhead or Heathrow but half the trains will start from Old Oak Common, giving superb capacity to the West End, the City and Docklands. Changing at Old Oak Common will provide faster journey times for many passengers too, especially as HS2 trains will arrive there seven minutes earlier than at Euston.

The infrastructure to provide for the Elizabeth Line interchange is itself quite significant, with four new platforms on the slower pair of the four tracks from Paddington, one on each side for trains starting or terminating beyond Old Oak Common, and two in the middle for terminating trains. This is all logical and essential but, inevitably, expensive and disruptive as the tracks have to be slewed to allow for construction of the new platforms.

The problematic, and highly questionable, element of the project is provision of four new platforms on the fast pair of tracks (the “main lines” in traditional Great Western speak) used by InterCity trains to and from Paddington and Heathrow Express. While none of these trains will terminate at Old Oak Common, these tracks today are used by around fifteen fast trains an hour each way. So, there have to be two platforms for services in each direction, with trains using alternate platforms.

London Underground works with around 30 second “dwell times” at each station but this doesn’t work for long distance trains with end doors and lots of passengers carrying luggage; realistic dwell times for InterCity trains are around two minutes and, allowing for braking and acceleration, trying to live with just one platform isn’t possible with this level of frequency. As with the Elizabeth Line platforms, the engineering work involved will be highly disruptive, with weekend frequencies on both Great Western and the Elizabeth Line severely reduced for months on end so that all trains can be shoe-horned onto one track in each direction, together with major closures at Bank holidays and Christmas.

Superficially the end justifies the means: “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”, and the end product will be a superb interchange between the Great Western Main Line and HS2. It’s currently planned that all main line trains will stop – Mark Hopwood, Great Western’s Managing Director accepts that this is probably the case, because any main line trains stopping there will in practice result in longer journey times for all trains, even if the stops aren’t advertised. 

However, the fatal flaw is that the interchange has only limited use in practice, except possibly for HS2 passengers heading for Heathrow using Heathrow Express. But for the great majority of Heathrow Express passengers, the non-stop, fast journey is the major selling point – otherwise they would travel on the Elizabeth Line or, to minimise cost, take the Piccadilly Line, slow but cheaper – so the five minute longer journey time won’t be welcome.

The outcome for longer distance Great Western passengers is much more clear-cut, and overwhelmingly negative. There are regular direct trains today from stations such as Reading, Bristol, Cardiff and Plymouth to Birmingham and beyond, so why would anyone use a Great Western train to Old Oak Common to change there onto HS2 for little if any saving in journey time and at a significantly higher fare? 

So, for minimal benefit, the great majority of passengers on the Great Western InterCity services travelling to and from London will suffer a longer journey time in each direction as a result of the extra stop, whilst train turn-round times at Paddington will be reduced, impacting on punctuality. There will be less time to recover for late arrivals, less time for cleaning and servicing the trains at Paddington and longer waiting times for passengers on the concourse before they are able to board departing services. This impact could potentially be reduced by using more trains and crews to maintain existing turn-round times – but this would significantly increase operating costs.

On the face of it, the interchange looks attractive, and the downsides are not immediately obvious. But what stakeholders in the South West and South Wales actually want is faster trains to London and faster cross-country services. Councillor Huw Thomas, the leader of Cardiff Council, articulated this in an article for “High Speed Rail: Levelling Up Voices” published by the High Speed Rail Group. He is acutely aware that HS2 provides no benefit for South Wales, and argues for an X-shaped high speed rail network, providing fast connections to the Midlands and the North. However, buried within the HS2 small print, it’s worse than that, as journeys to London from all of the West of England and South Wales, as well as from Oxford and Worcester, will actually be slower.

There seem to be two possible ways forward. Either the main line platforms at Old Oak Common are abandoned, saving substantial capital expenditure and massive disruption, or the Government goes for broke and sets out to develop Old Oak Common as the West London equivalent of Stratford, now a major interchange, and during the pandemic the busiest station on the network. To achieve this would require sustained investment in orbital connections with, as an absolute minimum, new stations on the North London and West London routes of London Overground, together with a new station on the Central Line. These routes could feed into both HS2 and the Great Western main line – but this approach would be a considerable leap of faith, especially as there’s no equivalent of Canary Wharf in West London for which the new station would be the gateway.

Photo credit: Paul Bigland.

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