Last week the levelling up secretary Michael Gove cast doubts over the future of high speed rail when he confirmed on Talk Radio that the project could face further cut backs. The budget will apparently be subject to a further review as the government seeks to plug the gap in public sector finances. Today Mark Harper, the transport secretary, told Sky News that the government remained “committed” to the project. The HS2 rail link has been controversial from the start. So what’s the real story, and why do we need it?
Are we really spending £100bn just to save 20 minutes off the journey time to London and is it massively environmentally damaging? Or is it essential to ensure the future growth of our country with modern and sustainable transport infrastructure?
Why we need HS2
Britain’s railways are full. Before the Covid pandemic hit it was estimated that some major routes would be operating at over 200% of their capacity by 2022. There is latent demand for extra freight and local stopping services which cannot be met: running long-distance express services requires the route ahead to be kept clear since trains cannot overtake each other.
Practically all of the ills of the UK rail network – delays, overcrowding and high fares – can be traced to this lack of capacity. It’s important to note that the notionally ‘private’ train operating companies have very little freedom – quite apart from Northern Rail and East Coast operator LNER being already nationalised, many ‘walk up’ fares are set by the Department for Transport and service patterns and types of train used are also heavily regulated by the government – even outside the current pandemic period. Network Rail, although notionally private, can also be considered as nationalised since the ultimate guarantor of the company’s debt is the UK government.
Pre-pandemic at least, trains were full and standing (including at weekends since leisure travel is in itself a large market for rail travel) but there is no capacity to run more trains to absorb this demand. Operators are encouraged to set fares high to deter demand; however, most travellers have no option but to pay these fares to make the journeys they need to make.
In 2019, pre-Covid times and used to represent ‘normality’ pre-Covid, transport and in particular road transport, was the largest single source of UK carbon emissions. In order to tackle this contribution to the climate emergency, we need to effect a significant modal shift from road to rail – but this is not possible without significant rail capacity increases.
Improved transport links are essential
The demands of a 21st-century economy require improved transport links to enhance the capacity and connectivity of major urban centres in the UK – both to complement and eventually replace high carbon emitting output transport modes such as road and short-haul domestic air travel. The same pattern has been successfully tried both elsewhere in Europe but also further afield and it was noticed that rail journey times of some three and a half hours or less between major cities was sufficient to create a modal switch from plane to train.
A prime example of this is the change in fortunes of the air travel market between London and Paris where a sustained if gradual shift away from air travel has been observed in the years since Eurostar Channel Tunnel rail services began operating in 1996. These factors were recognised as far back as the mid-to-late 2000s when the then Labour government commissioned a report from Network Rail into future rail capacity requirements and created HS2 Ltd to develop and cost proposals for a new high speed rail line from London to the West Midlands and onwards.
Mixed traffic railways and capacity
Britain’s railways are typically ‘jack-of-all-trades’ designs. They carry a mix of long-distance, non-stop express services together with slower moving freight as well as local, stopping passenger trains.
One example of the capacity issues affecting the North West’s railways is the Manchester to Stoke-on-Trent route where many stations only have one local stopping train per hour in each direction to make way for two southbound express services per hour calling at Stockport, Macclesfield and Stoke-on-Trent only. Too bad if you live in Poynton, Bramhall or Prestbury.
A third Manchester–Euston express has to operate ‘the long way round’ via Crewe due to lack of capacity on the more direct Stoke route. The express services consume the most capacity because the slower trains have to be moved out of their way, given that overtaking is impossible on a two-track railway. The increase in speed difference between service types compared to the Victorian era – 125 mph versus 70 mph for steam-hauled expresses – exacerbates the problem.
Another way to understand the problem is to think about light rail systems such as Manchester’s Metrolink tram network. This can operate with headways (times between one service and the next) of six minutes or even less, because all the trams have the same acceleration and braking characteristic and they all have the same station stopping pattern.
Diverting express service capacity
Building HS2 and diverting these express services onto the new line can free up capacity to run more local services and solve this problem. This is the true benefit genius of HS2 – capacity, not speed. Just as Ford Motor Co wouldn’t fetch plans of the Model T when they need a new family car, so modern rail is built to higher speed standards than the Victorian rail network we still rely on.
Even the 125mph design speeds of 40 years ago are no longer considered ‘high speed’ in the modern sense of the word. Rail industry experts contend that building a high speed route is actually cheaper than increasing capacity through widening to an equivalent four-track conventional railway that would offer a similar capacity increase.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but the biggest benefits of HS2 aren’t actually on HS2 itself – they arise from what we can do with the released freed capacity and alleviated bottlenecks on the lines we currently have.
That freed capacity can be filled with more local and semi-fast regional services – so Poynton, Bramhall and Prestbury could have a far better service because the capacity-gobbling express trains have been moved to their own, dedicated lines. Freeing up capacity not just on the lines into Manchester Piccadilly but also at Piccadilly station itself, by moving HS2 services to their own station, also allows service patterns to be rethought – both passenger and freight. The Midlands region is leading the way on this, for example with proposals for enhanced Nottingham-Birmingham services using HS2 tracks.
Treasury short-term thinking
Cancelling the eastern leg of HS2 to Leeds has been condemned by rail industry commentators as “political spinelessness” and “chronic Treasury short-termism”: the original plan for HS2 would have relieved the southern ends of the East Coast, West Coast and Midland Main Lines – three lines for the price of one. The current plan to just build the London-Manchester section is great for us in the North West today but the tens of millions of people who will join the electoral register in future will despair at the short-sightedness of this decision when we still need extra rail capacity 30 years from now.
We unfortunately have a government that is determined, for the sake of its own political ideology, to treat the nation’s finances as if it were a household, and obsesses over the national debt when this is in no way necessary. HS2 represents the kind of ‘levelling up’ that the North so badly needs with improved transport links opening up access to jobs and leisure opportunities and the benefits should not just be restricted to the North West. The proposed Integrated Rail Plan is no solution to the North’s transport problems and I shall be discussing this in a future article for North West Bylines.
To summarise, the full HS2 network would be hugely beneficial to the north’s transport scene offering masses of extra capacity to run more passenger and freight trains. For the sake of balance, in my next piece on the subject of HS2 I will address some of the arguments that have been put forward against the rail plans.