HS2 fights on despite savage wounds

Sadly, High Speed 2 has become the ultimate Keynesian “make work” project. The timescales constantly slip, the costs constantly inflate and the scope is constantly reduced. I have always been at best sceptical about the project but never in my wildest nightmares did I imagine that it could all go so badly wrong. 

When the full project was originally announced, it was going to extend from London to both Leeds and Manchester with a branch to Heathrow and a connection to High Speed 1 to allow through trains to Europe. There was then to be the “Golborne Link”, joining the West Coast Main Line (WCML) south of Wigan, further accelerating trains to and from Scotland and by-passing congested, two track sections of the WCML. But sections have now been progressively chopped, rather like the knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who insists on keeping fighting as his limbs are hacked off one by one.

First to go were the connections to HS1 and Heathrow. Any rational analysis of both showed that neither would have got anywhere close to generating the passenger volumes needed to fill regular high speed trains. Would it have been too much to ask that Ministers and, for that matter, Parliament had required rational analysis of the financial and economic cases for both branches before trumpeting them? So far as I’m aware, there was never any published business case for these links which were asserted to be “strategic” – because in truth there never was a business case.

In November 2021, the Eastern leg was cut back to a shorter section joining the Midland Main Line at East Midlands Parkway. This was met by fury in Yorkshire but with relative silence in the East Midlands as the revised route would enable high speed trains to go direct to both Nottingham and Derby instead of serving the region by a Parkway station at Toton, between the two cities and not really convenient for either of them. Last year the Golborne Link was chopped too, increasing the projected journey times to Scotland and constraining capacity for freight between Crewe and Wigan.

Most recently, the important Phase 2A section north of Birmingham to Crewe is to be delayed by at least two years and the section from Old Oak Common to Euston is also to be delayed, with yet more work to be done to develop a cost effective Euston terminal, despite an earlier “reset” a couple of years ago to deliver this and £2billion already spent there. The Chancellor reaffirmed government’s commitment to completion throughout to Euston although, in a recent television interview, Michael Gove was not fully on message on this.

Old Oak Common isn’t necessarily the complete disaster that it has been portrayed, as the Elizabeth Line will provide a high level of capacity into central London with ten trains an hour starting empty from there and providing equivalent city centre distribution and greater capacity than the existing Underground lines from Euston. Nevertheless, it’s by no stretch in central London and has desperately poor road access. Also, the name means nothing to people in Birmingham or Manchester – given its location, one cynical friend suggested it should be called Wormwood Scrubs instead. There are also practical engineering issues to be overcome; if HS2 is eventually to get to Euston, the tunnel east from Old Oak Common surely has to be built before the station opens? 

As yet, the Government remains “committed” to constructing the Crewe – Manchester section, for which the parliamentary Bill is in the Committee Stage.

Despite the ballooning costs and ever more distant timescales, true believers still assert that the project should be completed in full even though it no longer has a respectable business case. Certainly, it’s true that pushing timescales back is likely to increase overall costs further. For the Metro Mayors, HS2 is funded by central government, so is essentially a freebie. There is of course an opportunity cost; investment in the existing network, for example, network electrification to deliver Net Zero, is drying up. In a parallel universe, if Andy Burnham had been offered, say, £10bn for capital schemes in Greater Manchester, I doubt if he would have chosen to spend it on a high speed line to London.

Some of the benefits of HS2 are doubtful too, particularly for freight. Logistics UK recently claimed that “HS2 has the potential to release capacity on the existing network for up to 144 extra freight trains per day” but I have yet to see any evidence to support this. The delay to construction of Phase 2A will in fact result in HS2 trains joining the existing network just south of the major capacity pinch-points in the Colwich–Stafford section, restricting freight capacity on the route.  There will still be too many 110-125 mph trains at the south end of the route to allow any daytime freight operation on the two “fast lines”, so freight will continue to have to share the “slow lines” with stopping passenger trains as it does today. 

The devil lies in the detail too, which has been consistently ignored throughout HS2’s development. For example, freight trains join the WCML just south of Wembley, from a standing start in the yard there. To access the northbound fast line, every freight train would have to cross all four tracks at around 15 mph, preventing any other movements for around five minutes.

However, we are where we are. Phase 1 should now be finished, probably terminating at Old Oak Common with improved links to the Central line and London Overground but without the enormously disruptive and expensive Great Western Main line platforms – if you want to travel from Reading or Bristol to Birmingham or Manchester, you would certainly take a direct train, not pay more and take longer to travel via Old Oak Common and HS2! There would of course be the need to decide what to do with the massive building site at Euston but I guess it could be redeveloped. 

Phase 2A should be finished, without further delay, giving faster journey times to the North West and Scotland and delivering a real, albeit modest, benefit for freight and the East Midlands Parkway section should also be built. However, I am unconvinced by the case for Crewe – Manchester, which is a very expensive section for relatively few trains.


Photo credit: Paul Bigland.

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