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HS2 and London-centric thinking

by British Awakening – 29 May 2019

Image by User:Cnbrb - This file has been extracted from another file: UK high speed rail map.png, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

It is sometimes easy to forget that the United Kingdom enjoys an extensive intercity network with trains operating at speeds of over 200kph (120 mph), so it could be argued high speed rail already exists across the nation. An EU directive (96/48/EC) defines high speed rail as having track dedicated to high speed travel with trains operating at a minimum line speed of 250 kph (155 mph). By that definition the U.K. has one high speed line (HS1) that operates between London, Paris and Brussels via the Channel Tunnel.

High Speed 2 (HS2) is a high-speed railway which will connect London, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester. The scheme is scheduled to open in phases between 2026 and 2033 with high-speed trains travelling up to 400 km/h (250 mph) on 330 miles (530 km) of track. This would make HS2 the fastest commercial railway in Europe, faster than the Japanese Shinkansen (the fabled bullet trains) and comparable to the newer high speed lines in China.

The EU has for a number of years been supporting mega projects to build its trans-European network, in 2015 Violeta Bulc confirmed that the EU was investing in the project up to a maximum of €39 billion. This rather suggests that however much people in Britain dislike the project, Brussels is pretty keen on it being built and I would argue were it not for Brexit the scheme would certainly go ahead irrespective of our views. As a Brexiteer I am not going to fall into some sort of default mode where everything the EU does is necessarily bad, HS2 has a number of merits I am just not convinced by the scheme as whole.

HS2 is coming under increasing attack by politicians and parts of the media but it is easy to forget that HS1 also went through periods of controversy. Perhaps the difference was that HS1 had a clear logic to it, the Channel Tunnel had been built and on the French side a high-speed rail connected the portal at Calais to Paris, the conventional rail connection on the UK side was a bit of an embarrassment. HS2 has never really enjoyed the same clarity in terms of what it sets out to achieve, the project is now expected to cost £56 Billion, almost double the original estimate and there is now increasing doubt about its future.

Personally I do see value in high speed rail but feel that phase 1 of HS2, the link between London and Birmingham offers poor value for the tax payer. There is already sufficient capacity on this route that operates at high speed, HS2 would shave about one quarter of an hour off the journey between the two cities, this works out to a couple of billion per minute. Notwithstanding doubts about the journey time the London connection is a sub optimal design, it not only lacks a direct connection with HS1 but seems instead to have become the flagship for a major property redevelopment scheme at Old Oak Common in West London. Put bluntly if it is built according to current design a business traveller from Leeds on his way to Paris flies down the country at 250mph, stops at a part of London he doesn’t want to go to, travels on to Euston and then has to get out and travel a mile or so by bus or tube to King’s Cross to continue his journey.

There is also an element of NIMBYism to my views on phase 1 – the Vale of Aylesbury. One hour from my home in London I can be in some of the most magnificent countryside in Britain, those of you that know the region will not need much convincing from me of its stunning beauty, those of you that don’t know it – well I envy you, I envy the feeling you will have when you first see it. Is it really worth scarring such natural beauty? Is it really worth the destruction of so many ancient woodlands? I would argue no.

Look more closely however and HS2 does however have support when you consider some of the other phases, in 2013 the Department of Transport commissioned HS2 Ltd to undertake a feasibility study into improving journey times to the north of England and Scotland. In 2018 Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, announced that two of the better options would be studied more deeply to determine costs and technical feasibility. South of the border advocates of the Northern Powerhouse initiative are also strongly supportive of a high-speed rail network to connect the northern cities.

I suspect that HS2 is unlikely to deliver value for money with its current approach, but I do not think the scheme should be killed off completely, work on phase 1 should be cancelled and instead money should be spent to support the Scottish Government in completing their feasibility studies and preparing their business case with a view to obtain funding. In terms of design already committed we should accelerate the work on the phases that link Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds since these enjoy more public support and offer much better value to the taxpayer.

Partly because of EU planning and partly because of the natural geography of our island we have allowed our thinking about rail to become London-centric. Even in railwayman’s terms track is described as ‘up’ to London or ‘down’ to the country. This has inevitably resulted in a radial system with London at the centre of a spider’s web of rail lines. This thinking has affected London itself – tube users wanting to travel from say West London to North London have to travel into the city centre to come back out again. As an Arsenal fan living in West London you have to take my word for it how tedious and irritating it was to travel to a game by tube that I could drive to more quickly. It was only with the advent of London Overground that Londoners could travel more directly to where they wanted to get to. The same thinking that made London Overground such a game changer needs to be adopted on a grander scale. Don’t bin HS2 – don’t get emotional about it, have a rethink and let us build the other sections of HS2 and extend it to Scotland if the business case stacks up and maybe just for once stop prioritising London over the rest of the country.

ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB:

From the BBC:

HS2: MPs had ‘enormously wrong’ cost estimate, says whistleblower

From Wikipedia:

High Speed 2

HS2 website:

HS2

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