Britain has to continue to modernise, and that means new infrastructure. That is expensive. But the alternative is to allow capitalism’s decline to take the working class with it…
Rishi Sunak’s announcement at the Conservative Party conference in October that he was cancelling HS2 hardly came as a surprise given his long-term antipathy towards the railway industry. It calls the future of the rail network into question with a scorched earth approach.
HS2 has not been completely cancelled – but the government intends that a new high speed railway should be built only from Old Oak Common in west London to Birmingham. This will mean that British taxpayers will pay much of the costs but will get few, if any, of the benefits of the HS2 project.
Sunak left a remote possibility of running into Euston if private investment is forthcoming. But that looks very unlikely to be sanctioned. Sunak’s plan for Euston reduces the HS2 station from 14 to just 6 platforms.
That arrangement could not handle more than 8 trains an hour, well short of the 17 trains an hour that would be needed to serve places beyond Manchester in the North West and Scotland. And HS2 services to North Wales and North East England would definitely be out.
Sunak has decided that land and property already acquired in preparation for the new line will be sold off. Valuable prime land around Euston will be released, and is sure to be snapped up at knock-down rates by developers. This would impede the construction of more platforms later.
This poison pill ensures that it would be difficult to resurrect the HS2 line north to Manchester and beyond.
Sunak tried to sweeten his decision by announcing that money saved by not building HS2 beyond Birmingham would be spent on other transport projects, as well as mending road potholes and keeping bus fares down.
The list of potential rail re-openings and other public transport enhancements in a document titled Network North was cobbled together in time for the conference speech. It was compiled so hastily that it included some works already in place and others that the government had already committed to.
There was no consultation with any interested parties like Network Rail, the northern mayors, local authorities, or railway experts.
With no sense of shame, Sunak made his conference announcement from behind a rostrum blazoned “Long Term Decisions for a Brighter Future”. He has decided to cancel a long-term project which enjoyed wide support.
'Taxpayers will pay the costs but get few, if any benefits...'
Within hours of the speech, the government’s own website shortened the list of projects. Transport secretary Mark Harper then suggested that the document was not a plan but a list of examples of what might be done, despite it clearly saying the opposite. Sunak has now said that money will be given to mayors and local authorities for them to decide how to spend it!
Worse still, Network North is a thoroughly dishonest document. As an attempt to appeal to voters in the north of England it is probably in vain. And as it tacks on references to Tavistock, Bristol and Felixstowe, it’s unlikely to impress people in East Anglia or the South West either!
Most of the rail projects listed as alternatives to HS2 are unlikely to be achieved, because they will not meet the business case requirements of the Department for Transport and the Treasury. And examination of the consequences of cancellation reveals the lack of thinking by government about what Britain needs from its rail network.
Renewed commitments to building the Northern Powerhouse rail network connecting cities across northern England can’t be taken at face value. Those plans assumed in evaluating expected benefits that HS2 would be built at least to Manchester. As previous commitments about HS2 have been discarded, who will now believe in commitments to Northern Powerhouse Rail?
The document does at least concede that the principal aim of HS2 was to relieve long-term capacity constraints in the rail network. But in trying to justify why only the first phase will be completed, it states that those constraints only exist between London and Birmingham. This is not true.
The rump of HS2 that will now be built is unlikely to even relieve the southern section of the West Coast Main Line. That line south of Rugby into London is close to running at capacity despite the downturn in passenger numbers after the Covid pandemic.
Few train paths are available on that route for additional passenger services and none for freight trains. Yet everyone agrees they are needed to relieve congested road networks – and there’s an impact on other rail services.
Mixing fast inter-city services with local trains and freight trains eats up the capacity of any rail network. Capacity increases markedly when trains run at roughly the same speed and without frequent stops.
The primary purpose of HS2 was to transfer fast inter-city trains along the West Coast route onto a dedicated high-speed line. That would have allowed frequent trains to follow each other at around 250 mph – twice as fast as current inter-city trains. Then, more local stopping trains could be run giving a much better service to cities such as Coventry, Oxford, Cambridge, and Milton Keynes as well as to London.
If HS2 terminates at Old Oak Common rather than Euston in central London, it will fulfil the prophecies of the project’s many detractors who called it a white elephant – and which will have cost around £45 billion.
Significant capacity constraints already exist outside the London to Birmingham line. The Midland Main Line from London St. Pancras to Sheffield is nearly full at the southern end and in the East Midlands. The East Coast Main Line is also nearing its capacity to cope with traffic. The recently axed Phase 3 to serve the East Midlands, Sheffield and Leeds had been planned to relieve both those lines.
And on the West Coast line, there is a bottleneck around Crewe, which Phase 2a of HS2 would have relieved. Cancellation will limit the number of services which can be run over the much-reduced section HS2 that will be built.
Delays and contraction of the HS2 project have an effect beyond rail operations. They have put at risk the future of the train building plant at Derby, Britain’s largest and most advanced train building facility.
Sunak’s latest decision makes that site even more vulnerable. There are also concerns about the future of Hitachi’s factory at Newton Aycliffe. Thousands of highly skilled jobs and others in the supply chain hang in the balance.
The government has tried to justify its decisions by saying rail passenger numbers and revenue are not back to pre-pandemic levels. That’s only partly true.
Revenue is down by nearly a quarter from the year before the pandemic. This is largely due to a huge drop-off in business travel and a reduction in commuting, particularly in the London area. Much higher fares have affected both markets.
But there has been a considerable increase in leisure travel, with some services and stations seeing patronage at 130 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. Remarkably, despite cuts in services and uncertainty created by industrial action, passenger numbers are climbing fast and can be expected to carry on doing so.
The government has also claimed that soaring costs made HS2 unaffordable. Costs have risen massively, partly because the project was saddled with expensive noise mitigation measures and excessively long tunnels in order to appease objectors – who continued their opposition anyway. Poor project management and the continuing uncertainty have also forced up costs.
HS2 as previously conceived was far from perfect in several respects.
The design speed of 250 mph increased costs. The higher the line speed, the less sharply the route can curve. The 200 mph lines more usually found across western Europe can more easily avoid obstacles which would otherwise be expensive to mitigate.
The new high-speed network was going to have no less than four “dead-end” termini in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. Through stations would be far more efficient, if more expensive to build. But it was not going to be linked with HS1, which runs from the Channel Tunnel to St Pancras, which seemed a perverse decision.
But whatever the government thinks, Britain needs to expand its railway capacity for both passenger and freight. A long-term solution was always going to mean a new railway.
Upgrading existing routes is extremely disruptive. Design is constrained by existing buildings and so on. And trains have to be kept running during construction works. All this makes upgrading expensive – potentially much more so than HS2!
Britain built a new motorway network from the 1950s on. The existing road network, much of it pre-dating the industrial revolution, could not cope with increased traffic. This did not just benefit long distance road users – it freed up road capacity for local journeys too.
Now, the Victorian railway network needs to see a similar quantum leap forward with the construction of a new railway network built to 21st century engineering standards. The new Elizabeth Line in London shows that new railways make journeys much quicker and easier – and are enormously popular.
• See also Where's the capacity?
• See also More delay, more cost