to hs2 or not to hs2…

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That is the question to which we shall imminently have the answer. The long wait for High Speed 2, Europe’s largest infrastructure project, is almost at an end but will the project, oft referred to as a Whitehall white elephant, finally be put out of its misery?

The first London to Birmingham railway, which opened in 1838, took 20,000 pick-wielding navies only five years to build, but HS2’s genesis has been very much slower and a tad more costly. It was first proposed by Margaret Thatcher that Britain, like France and Japan, should have a high-speed network. In 1996, Tony Blair’s government approved the 67 mile HS1 link from the Channel Tunnel to London, which paved the way for the proposed HS2. Davey-Boy Cameron and Mother Theresa liked the sound of it too and the first phase was voted through in 2017.

At the beginning, it was to be a 330-mile Y-shaped railway that would run from London Euston to Birmingham before splitting into two forks, one to Crewe and then Manchester and the other to York and then Leeds. On the London to Birmingham section, 18 trains an hour would carry up to 1,100 passengers with a reduced travel-time of 49 minutes, down from 84. The line would be linked to both Heathrow in the west and HS1 in the east. With an initial predicted price tag of #32bn, trains would be running by 2026 and the whole project completed by 2033. So far, so good-ish.

Although it was initially said to be about reducing journey times, the best long-term case for HS2 was really about increasing capacity. The west coast main line was, before the Covid pandemic, running at full capacity and was openly acknowledged as the busiest, most congested railway line in Europe and the new line, capable of carrying 100m passengers a year, would undoubtedly relieve some of the pressure, whilst potentially handling more freight. The argument advocating a ‘levelling-up’ benefit where business would be drawn from the south to the north was spurious at best and disingenuous at worst. Traffic would be travelling south to London’s metropolis not the other way.

Needless to say, and as we all appreciate, HS2 has not gone to plan. Costs have escalated dramatically and the taxpayer is now expected to foot a bill to the tune of #100bn. At the same time, the project as it now stands is a shadow of its former self. Links to HS1 and Heathrow were dropped at an early stage. In late 2021, the ‘Yorkshire’ fork was axed, with the terminus now being somewhere between Leicester and Nottingham. The ‘Lancashire’ fork certainly looks set for the chop and even the London trains will terminate in Old Oak Common, an industrial park five miles west of central London.

The pandemic obviously brought delays and contributed to a changing nature of work where excessive travel and long-commutes became a thing of the past. Subsequent high-inflation within the supply-chain has contributed to raising costs considerably and the justified question is now being asked as to whether HS2 is either warranted, needed or can be afforded? Is the continued future development of HS2 a case of throwing good money after bad?

Last year, the government spent more than #5bn on HS2, roughly the same as it spent on the national road network. Much as I see the long-term need for the development and continued enhancement of public transport in all its forms, I can’t help believe that the money would be far better used to fund much-needed improvements to both existing railways, the road network and public transport. Rail passengers in the north, especially, have to contend with dreadfully poor and unreliable services. Relative to the beautiful south, the region has been starved of investment and reliable cross-Pennine travel options are nowhere to be seen.

The many billions remaining in the HS2 budget could potentially fund electrification to existing rail lines and help develop improved signaling technology throughout as well as increasing rolling stock. The plan for a Northern Powerhouse line from Manchester to Leeds – the largest city in Western Europe without a light rail or underground system – could be revived. With some #20bn spent already and a further #15bn contracted out, I realise it’s a big decision to call it a day, but I know where my money is.