Despite the repeatedly debunked objections by some opposed to the project, the High Speed 2 (HS2) rail line as originally envisaged would have offered genuinely revolutionary upgrades for passengers across the North West, Yorkshire and beyond, legitimate concerns about rising costs notwithstanding.
However, the present government is slicing away at the specification of the project with the cancellation of the Leeds leg, reduction of the number of platforms at the rebuilt Euston station in London and now cancellation of the Golborne Link. These cuts amount to ‘spoiling the sheep for a ha’porth of tar’ and massively reduce the viability and utility of the project.
The main purpose of HS2 – despite the name – is increasing rail capacity. Pre-Covid UK rail passenger numbers have more than doubled since the mid-1990s. Key rail arteries are at or close to capacity – demand for rail travel exceeds the number of trains it is possible to run on trunk routes such as Manchester and Liverpool to London.
A major flaw of the current operation is that for much of the route there are only two tracks running between the stations and these have to accommodate both non-stop express trains and local, stopping services, as well as freight trains. Given the inability of fast trains to overtake slower ones running on the same lines, slow trains must give way to fast trains. In other words, the more express trains we want to run, the worse the service frequency for the intermediate stations not served by these express trains.
This is most clearly seen on a route such as Manchester to Stoke-on-Trent, where three express services per hour calling at say Stockport, Macclesfield and Stoke only leave room for one stopping service per hour for passengers wanting stations such as Bramhall, Poynton or Cheadle Hulme. Equally, several major interchange stations are at, or over, design capacity.
Birmingham New Street, Leeds and Manchester Piccadilly all suffer from the same problem – intercity services take up most of the platform space and capacity on the station approaches, to the extent that local services have to be axed to make space. HS2 provides separate tracks to accommodate the high-speed trains between the major cities and frees up the existing route for more suburban trains and links between smaller towns and cities.
Axing the Leeds leg
The official confirmation in November 2021 that the Leeds leg of HS2 had been cancelled by the government was one of the first major signs that the Conservative government’s commitment to both the HS2 project and their “levelling up” agenda was not quite as sincere as had been trumpeted in the run-up the 2019 election.
Very similar arguments to the Manchester-Stoke axis can be made for the Leeds-Wakefield-Sheffield/Doncaster line – two Leeds-London express services per hour and one Cross Country express to the South result in large amounts of wasted capacity as potential local trains serving stations such as Sandal and Agbrigg, Fitzwilliam and Bentley cannot run. The line is full. In both cases the best solution is to build a new railway and divert the express services onto the new line. It allows far more seats per hour on the express trains and the existing lines can be more efficiently used for slower stopping trains which don’t catch each other up and need to overtake.
The government’s proposal to terminate the eastern branch of HS2 at an East Midlands Parkway station between Nottingham and Derby and upgrade the East Coast and Midland Main Lines for higher running speeds does nothing to address this problem and indeed arguably just makes things worse.
Manchester station options
The Parliamentary bill for the Manchester branch of HS2 provides for an above ground, terminus station in the city for HS2 trains. Architects Weston Williamson and Partners proposed an underground, through station which would allow HS2 trains to continue to Leeds via a North-to-East tunnel under Manchester towards a second new high speed rail tunnel under the Pennines already proposed as part of the Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) project.
The proponents offered this as a means of being able to scrap the Birmingham-Leeds leg of HS2 and achieve many of the same goals at a lower cost. The news that NPR would be scrapped as well as the Leeds leg of HS2 renders this benefit redundant at least for now, but the proposal is still described as “oven-ready” and would have benefits over the above-ground terminus station, including avoiding the need for future HS2 services beyond Manchester to reverse in the terminus station and avoid losing prime development land in Manchester city centre.
It would also potentially ease services to Scotland from Manchester which currently have to travel via comparatively slow and congested routes via Eccles or Bolton and Wigan. Mayor Andy Burnham has come down firmly in favour of the idea but the government at present shows no sign of listening, preferring the short-sighted approach of the cheaper terminus station option.
Very quietly, in October 2021, the HS2 Minister Andrew Stephenson confirmed that the London Euston HS2 terminus would be reduced to ten platforms, from 11, as part of cost-cutting and time-saving measures. This had been rumoured as far back as February 2021 before cancellation of the Leeds leg. Should the full HS2 network as envisaged ever be constructed, this descoping would impact reliability and remove “breathing space” to accommodate late-running services.
The Golborne Link
A key benefit of HS2 is the ability for trains to operate via the new route to destinations further North via the Golborne Link West of Manchester to allow services from HS2 metals to join the existing West Coast Main Line (WCML) near Wigan.
But this means HS2 would truly be part of the national rail network in future as trains could operate via HS2 to/from Preston, Lancaster and destinations further north. As for the WCML, its services comprise a mixture of “fast inter-city services, stopping passenger services and freight of variable speeds creat[ing] a significant challenge to fit the inter-city timetable with that of various local and regional services”. The Warrington area of the WCML also suffers from congestion due to the variety of services using it together with a number of regional services that either use this stretch of the WCML or cross it on the level via unmodernised flat junctions. All this creates conflicting train movements that cause congestion and rob the stretch of capacity.
The Golborne Link, a short 13-mile stretch of line that would have resolved many of these issues by allowing many express trains to bypass the Warrington area was quietly confirmed by the government as having been cancelled, with local MPs and other politicians seemingly jubilant, although rail industry figures condemned the move.
The government has suggested that alternative alignments could be found to serve the same purpose as the Golborne Link and in strict rail engineering terms a link from HS2 to the WCML North of Wigan would be useful in further bypassing the two-track Wigan-Preston bottleneck of the WCML. But it must be questioned why the Golborne Link was allowed to progress so far before being scrapped and the funds for any alternative project must come out of the £96 billion Integrated Rail Plan fund.
With trust in the current government declining rapidly there are also understandable concerns that the Golborne Link may not be replaced and that, despite the objections of local politicians, the Link represents the “least worst option” to integrating HS2 into the North West’s existing rail network.
A shadow of what could have been
The HS2 project may be controversial but it could also have huge benefits, at least as originally envisaged. However, there must now be very serious concerns that government budget cuts (seemingly driven purely by Treasury ideology and an inaccurate determination to compare governments to households in terms of budgets and debts) and short-sighted local political lobbying will reduce the scheme to little more than a pair of Manchester/Liverpool-London relief lines.
This isn’t to say such a scheme wouldn’t be useful – it would relieve a number of bottlenecks on the current rail network – but it would be a shadow of the transformative scheme HS2 could, and should, have been.
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