Monday essay: a high speed problem

HS2 may now be under construction, but the debate about it continues in no uncertain terms. The problem with HS2 is that it is quite simple to make a case for or against the idea.

AFTER more than ten years of discussion, work is finally underway on Phase 1 of HS2.

Tunnelling machines are starting their 16km journeys under the Chilterns, while development continues at Birmingham Curzon Street (where the original station building is to keep an honoured place), Birmingham Interchange, Old Oak Common and London Euston. Plannng consents have been obtained for these.

Another intermediate station is possible, because ‘passive provision’ is being made for a future interchange with East West Rail at Claydon, where the two lines will cross. 

Meanwhile, the next sections to Crewe and Manchester are also in progress in Parliament. The High Speed Rail (West Midlands-Crewe) Bill has reached the report stage in the House of Lords, and the government reported in October that preparations are now underway for a hybrid Bill for the Western Leg of Phase 2b (Crewe to Manchester). 

A consultation on ‘design refinements’ as part of Northern Powerhouse Rail was also launched on 7 October. 

There is perhaps some doubt about the fate of the line to the East Midlands and Yorkshire. In October, rail minister Andrew Stephenson said the government was ‘considering the best approach to get the most benefit for Leeds, the North East, and the East Midlands’, while also ‘prioritising development of the western leg into Manchester’.

This was followed in December by a new assessment from the National Infrastructure Commission, which reduced the importance of the eastern leg of HS2 to Leeds in favour of regional schemes. 

The Commission recommended ‘prioritising improved connectivity between Sheffield and Leeds, improved connectivity between Sheffield and Manchester [and] a new line from Manchester to Leeds via Bradford’, while it also questioned the need for a hub station at Toton, saying that an ‘alternative option for consideration would be to improve the existing East Midlands Parkway station’. 

These latest recommendations have angered politicians and business leaders, with Nottingham South MP Lilian Greenwood describing the proposals as ‘an insult’. 

In short, HS2 may now be under construction, but the debate about it continues in no uncertain terms.

The problem with HS2 is that it is quite simple to make a case for or against the idea.

Those in favour of HS2 point out that there is a shortage of capacity on the West Coast Main Line, and that moving most intercity traffic to another route would make room for more freight trains, which will be vital in a carbon-free future. The high speed line will improve links between the three largest cities in England – London, Birmingham and Manchester – and provide a new rail spine from which regional railways can radiate. The present scheme is not necessarily the whole story, either. The long term aim would be to extend the high speed lines further north, until Edinburgh and Glasgow can also be part of an exciting high speed future. 

Suggestions that existing railways could take the strain won’t wash – particularly the persistent myth that the former Great Central line would do, even though it was built to Victorian standards and was not, repeat not, built to a ‘continental’ loading gauge.

(What would be known as the ‘Berne’ gauge did not exist when the GC was being built, and in case the GCR’s dimensions were smaller than those of the future Berne Gauge. The Berne loading gauge width is usually accepted to be 3.15m, while the Great Central was built to a width of 2.82m. The Berne Gauge maximum height was 4.28m, while the GCR equivalent was 4.09m.)

There was nothing very exceptional about the dimensions of the GCR. Although its dimensions were comparatively generous when compared with some of the older British railways, this was probably to comply with revised Board of Trade regulations. As a high speed line, it would be a resounding second-best.

Above all, HS2 will be a crucial step in the essential journey towards a zero-carbon world. With the railway journey time between London and Manchester down to little more than an hour, short-haul flights would become a memory.

For those against HS2, there are various points they can make – with some justice, too. One is the increasing cost, which has risen significantly, casting increasing doubt on the benefit-cost ratio.

Another is the damage being caused to the countryside, with the loss of irreplaceable wildlife habitats and ancient woodlands, while the biggest doubt of all concerns whether anyone will use the line, with predictions by the critics that fares will be high and, to quote one recent letter to Railnews, ‘the consideration of 14 or 18 – most probably empty – trains an hour’.

(This, regrettably, is an example of an HS2 critic simply making things up. ‘Most probably empty’ has no basis in any prediction or forecast.)

But, even so, love it or hate it, HS2 does seem to be going ahead. Perhaps twenty years from now, we might know which side was right.

The next print edition of Railnews, RN287, will be published on 14 January. That edition and some previous issues can be obtained by calling 01438 281200 from UK numbers or +44 1438 281200 internationally, and selecting Option 2.