R981 - HS2: the DfT blunders on!

It all started with the scrapping of HS2’s eastern leg from Birmingham to Leeds, proceeded through the loss of the Golborne link (restricting HS2’s ability to serve Scotland effectively) and the seemingly endless palaver about how many HS2 platforms Euston should have, and then HS2’s re-phasing (taking longer to build it) - allegedly to save money, but which actually significantly increases cost. 

Now there are rumblings that tunnelling from Old Oak Common to Euston may be ‘paused’ until Euston’s opening is closer. Superficial logic quickly collapses under scrutiny to be exposed as more barmy (nay, dangerous) thinking which again throws Euston into question. Those tunnels need to be bored from Old Oak Common, with spoil extracted by rail at the same end - and you cannot do that once Old Oak is open in any form. The tunnelling work must be done now. 

So, let’s take a really top-line view of HS2 and the damage which inept government (and especially former Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps) has inflicted on both its costs and benefits. 

RAIL started talking about the need for a north-south high-speed line in the mid-noughties. In 2008, the project finally got under way, led by pro-rail Transport SecretaryAndrew Adonis, who (contrary to claims by objectors) never majored on speed as the reason for HS2. That would never have created a business case. Instead, from the outset he clearly described the need for HS2 as the answer to an urgent requirement for a major north-south capacity uplift, as the West Coast, Midland and East Coast Main lines were all filling up. 

Capacity, supported by high speed, created the business case for HS2, which still has cross-party support. Indeed, Labour has said more than once that if returned to power it would build HS2 (and Northern Powerhouse Rail) “in full”. Sure, subsequent messaging was botched by both HS2 and Government, but the raison d’être for HS2 has always been the need for much more rail capacity - and the impact of COVID-19 has not changed that. Whatever post-2020 damage the pandemic did to commuting (currently a loss of around 20%), discretionary travel recovered quickly and has been growing fast. The need for long distance north-south capacity has not gone away, and the prime benefit of HS2 - relieving the WCML, MML and ECML in order to release capacity to redesign their services around fast inter-urban stopping trains and freight - is still very much an urgent requirement. 

Which is why the launch of the Integrated Rail Plan in November 2021 marked the start of a slippery slope of damage for HS2 and both its specific and wider benefits. 

The scrapping of HS2E was a disaster for the region served. This is an area where journey times are currently appalling and where HS2E would have had a profound effect. We have lost sight of the fact that HS2E was probably the most transformative single aspect of the entire network. 

Shapps’ ludicrous claim that Leeds could instead be accessed by cutting ECML journey times by 20+ minutes, by upgrading the existing route, could only just (if at all) be achieved by spending gazillions on an upgrade - wiping out many of the HS2E savings -AND decimating intermediate services to Peterborough, Grantham, Newark, Retford, Doncaster and Wakefield. 

Equally ludicrous… on the day HS2E to Leeds was killed off, Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised a £100 million initiative to investigate how Leeds could be connected to HS2! 

“Restrict Euston and you restrict capacity of the entire HS2 network… forever.” 

Nothing significant has since been done, of course. One way to have cut costs would have been to lower the speed of HS2E from a potential 400kph (250mph) to 360kph or even 300kph - this would be a much cheaper railway. I see no evidence of any such consideration before scrapping HS2E. 

Then, on April 6 2022, the Guardian reported that Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the influential 1922 Committee of Conservative backbench MPs, had written to one of his constituents saying that Shapps had given him “categorical assurances that the link would be removed from the HS Bill going through Parliament”. 

This 13-mile link would have connected HS2 near Knutsford, to the WCML just south of Wigan, enabling Anglo-Scottish services to reach Scotland more easily. Loss of the link means that only one (and not two) HS2 trains an hour can serve Scotland. It was classic NIMBYism - and Brady got away with it. 

The Hendy Union Connectivity Review suggested a similar link south of Preston, but said more work was needed. This was promised on June 6 2022 by HS Minister Andrew Stephenson, but there’s no evidence that any of this work has been done either. 

Then there’s the continuing farce at Euston. From 2010, the intention was for 11 HS2 platforms - confirmed in the Hybrid Bill of November 2013, which received Royal Assent in February 2017. Phase 1 would create six HS2 platforms outside the current footprint to handle ten trains per hour (tph). This Phase 1 HS2 service would then reduce express traffic on the WCML, enabling a further five platforms to be built at Euston for Glasgow and HS2E. 

But then, a single-stage construction plan was adopted to create just ten platforms instead of the 11 in the two-stage plan, because it would be allegedly quicker, cheaper and easier to build. Limiting trains serving the North would also enable more oversite property development What was that about ‘Levelling up’?! 

With construction inflation running at around 25%, even the single-stage Euston plan is now deemed unaffordable and the whole scheme has gone back to the drawing board. Pressure on the project has also been cranked up by the Treasury passing inflation risk to the Department for Transport. 

This is crucial because the number of platforms dictates not only turnaround times, but also the capability of the entire network. If trains run late and can’t be accommodated, reliability collapses and trains would have to be reversed at Old Oak instead of running to Euston. An operational disaster. 

A ten-platform Euston could theoretically handle 18tph, but it would be on an operational knife-edge every hour of the day.Amore realistic option is 16tph. As I’ve pointed out here before, restrict Euston and you restrict capacity of the entire HS2 network… forever. It also means that Phase 1 will never handle the heavy traffic it was designed and built for, from Glasgow, Newcastle and Leeds, and so will not be effectively utilised. More money wasted! 

Lose Euston - which is now being discussed again, either as matter of policy or because you can’t bore the tunnels once Old Oak is open - and HS2 really does become a white elephant. In round terms, you’d still have 80% of the £40 billion or so costs for Phase 1, but you’d keep just 20% of its benefits. Around 80% of HS2’s long-term benefits would be thrown away in the name of short-term cash flow requirements. 

Madness. As National Infrastructrure Commission Chairman Sir John Armitt put it: “Get it built as quickly as possible.” 

If you’ve finished it, you can’t overspend. 

Read this article in RAIL issue 981 here

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