HS2: worst of all possible worlds

A map of the route of the new High Speed 2 rail link.The juggernaut of HS2, the new high-speed rail link from London to Birmingham and, we are told, eventually beyond, ploughs on. Today the government awarded the contracts to various major construction companies to build the first stretch of the new line — joint ventures of a mixture of British and continental companies — and confirmed that 16 new houses on a development in Sheffield are to be destroyed by the new line, which is to pass outside of the city and be connected to it by a new spur line. I’ve made no secret of my opposition to this ludicrous project, which consists of the quite unnecessary destruction of already scarce housing as well as acres and acres of prime agricultural land. Seeing the revised map of the route on the BBC news website made me ask two questions: “what?” and “why?”.

To state the obvious, its main function is to link London with Birmingham and the major cities of central and northern England. Birmingham gets most of the initial benefit. Extensions are expected to go out to Manchester and Liverpool to the north west, and Nottingham and Leeds to the north east. There are already two major railway lines running to Birmingham, a fast one, mostly consisting of four tracks, that was upgraded to accommodate Italian tilting trains about 20 years ago which runs to a major station which has just had a major redevelopment (New Street), and a slower, cheaper one that serves smaller towns such as Amersham and Banbury and also received a major redevelopment in the 90s (before which there were no direct trains on that line). There is already a major line linking London to the East Midlands and Sheffield, which unlike the new line goes to all four city centres and serves a major interchange in London with direct links to Paris, Gatwick and Heathrow airports (Luton is on the line itself) and the South Coast, Kent as well as places like Cambridge, all of which Euston lacks. There’s already a major line between London and Leeds: the East Coast Main Line, which carries some of the fastest trains on some of the straightest, flattest track on the UK network and runs into the same major interchange.

There used to be another major line between London and the East Midlands: the Great Central Railway, or Great Central Metropolitan Extension to give it its full name (as the original GCR ran from Manchester to the East Midlands). It ran from Marylebone, where there remains space unused since its closure, on a sweeping arc of track through Aylesbury, Brackley and Rugby to Leicester and was closed in the Beeching cuts of the 1960s. Parts of it are to be used for the new line, but the bits that have been built on since closure will not; they will build whole new lines to bypass places like Brackley. Buying up all the old houses would no doubt be expensive, but surely less so than bulldozing a trail of houses in north and west London.

Whoever thought that combining rail services from London to all these places along the same pair of lines could possibly be a good idea? Unless the idea is to keep this line for premium fare-paying customers, any two-track line serving all the major cities of the Midlands and North will reach capacity very quickly and will need an extra pair of tracks from London to Birmingham. The map has no reference to south-west to north-east Cross-Country trains which currently link Birmingham to the north-east and originate from Bristol and Plymouth; there is no plan to electrify the Bristol-Birmingham line, so what will happen to these trains? And the lack of direct city-centre links in the East Midlands will put it at a distinct disadvantage compared to existing links (unless they are curtailed to force passengers onto HS2) and, of course, road — there are perfectly good motorways and dual carriageways linking Birmingham with all these places.

All this while the region is crying out for decent cross-country links — the line across the Pennines is already woefully inadequate and relies on diesel-based “Sprinter” trains, but a new link here is pencilled in as “HS3” and that’s far into the future if ever. Rail links from Birmingham eastwards are practically non-existent (trains to East Anglia, for example, run via Nottingham, a considerable detour, while road links have been greatly improved over the last few years). All in all it has the feel of a wasteful, destructive prestige project in which public money is being spent on a luxury fast rail link for wealthy commuters — people who may have been abundant in the pre-2008 world but may well be less so after Brexit, particularly if handled as badly as our politicians are currently doing.

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