No, the Great Central Main Line is not an adequate alternative to HS2

London Marylebone. Image: Oxyman/Wikimedia Commons.

On 3 August, the Spectator published an article arguing that there was a superior alternative to building HS2: reopening the Great Central Main Line.

That line stretched from London Marylebone, through Rugby, Leicester, and Nottingham, to Sheffield and Manchester. It was closed under the Beeching cuts, on the grounds that it was largely a duplicate of the Midland Main Line, but much of the trackbed is still extant.

Reviving this route perhaps would cost less to build than HS2: some parts of it are still in mainline use. But it remains an inferior option, nonetheless.

A map of the Great Central network in 1903. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

For a start, the Great Central route would miss out two of the four key HS2 cities, Leeds and Birmingham. It would thus not fulfil one of the key purposes of HS2 – relieving the West Coast Main Line. Instead it would increase capacity on the Midland Main Line, probably the least important of the three north-south mainlines – something reflected in the fact that it still hasn’t been electrified. (Cheers, Chris. No, we’re not going to stop mentioning you, even though you’ve lost your job. Sorry.)

Also, why go to the trouble of building a new high-speed railway that misses out the UK’s second city (Birmingham) and one of its fastest-growing (Leeds)? Instead, we get Rugby, Leicester, Nottingham, and Sheffield. These places are important – and desperately need better transport links – but it seems ridiculous to suggest that they are more important than Leeds and Birmingham.

HS2 will be faster, too. Whilst trains tend to dominate the market share for fast journeys when the journey itself takes less than 2hr30, only a few services – between London and Manchester, for example – are already fast enough to ensure a dominant market share. There is immense potential for onward journeys to Newcastle, Carlisle, Glasgow, and Edinburgh – places from which train travel to London and Birmingham does take longer than 2hr30. (Indeed, it takes longer to get to Birmingham from Newcastle than it does to get to London.)

HS2 services, using the HS2-only route to Manchester or Leeds and then moving onto classic sections of the rail network, will deliver real journey time reductions to these places, making rail travel more attractive for people living in the north-east, north-west, and Scotland. If we’re building a whole new line, we might as well build it properly.

The Great Central would also still require expensive tunnelling beneath Nottingham and Leicester. In Leicester, almost all of the trackbed has been built on; in Nottingham, it’s been taken over by trams. In Sheffield, things are simpler, but the route is also safeguarded for potential tram extensions. In this way, the Great Central route could in fact damage local transport.

To add to this, connections within cities will be awkward. Most of the big city stations on the Great Central route – Sheffield Victoria, Nottingham Victoria, Leicester Central, Rugby Central – have been closed and no longer exist. Transfers from these stations to others will be necessary anyway.


So is the Great Central route really a simpler alternative? The sections from London-Aylesbury and Manchester-Hadfield are also congested, and expensive and disruptive capacity improvements would be vital, probably including two additional tracks alongside these sections for intercity services. This alone would cost billions.

When you also consider that the original terminus, London Marylebone, has no spare capacity – In fact, no London terminus has any real spare capacity – and that land prices in London are astronomical, a London terminus for the new Great Central Main Line will cost more billions.

The final problem with the Great Central route is a less obvious one. The British public has something of an obsession with heritage railways: it’s one of those strangely British things, like drinking tea, keeping vast numbers of pets, or constantly talking about the weather. The Great Central railway is one such heritage railway, with two sections of track still in use – one from Leicester to Loughborough, and another from just north of Loughborough to just south of Nottingham.

A major project has been underway for some years to reconnect the two halves, and the railway is somewhat unique as the only double-track heritage railway in the world operating. This project, with its 18 miles of track, would have to be torn apart. Think the British public are angry at the destruction of ancient woodland? Just wait until you break up a major heritage railway.

The Great Central line may still has a role to play – much of it could and should be reopened. Reopening the line from Rugby to London, for example, would be fairly simple, bar station improvements at both ends, and could increase capacity on the most congested section of the WCML – an easy win.

But it’s not an adequate replacement for HS2, and it wouldn’t end up being much cheaper either, with extensive tunnelling and compensation schemes needed anyway. HS2 is not perfect, and more stations are needed – but it remains the better option for the UK. The Great Central route is no real alternative.

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