HS2: Digging an ever-bigger hole

Better northern rail links needed

Paul Salveson says it looks like things can only get worse

The Government’s decision to scrap the northern (Phase 2) leg of HS2 without any sensible alternative plan is causing massive problems. As readers may know, I have never been a fan of the project but we’ve ended up with a half-built scheme costing billions which will make precious little contribution to solving our transport problems, and could actually make them worse.

A recent report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) confirms this. Chair of the committee, Meg Hillier, was highly critical of current Government intentions, commenting: “The decision to cancel HS2’s Northern leg was a watershed moment that raises urgent and unanswered questions, laid out in our report. What happens now to the Phase 2 land, some of which has been compulsorily purchased? Can we seriously be actively working towards a situation where our high-speed trains are forced to run slower than existing ones when they hit older track?”

Hillier is referring to the current notion that the new HS2 route beyond Birmingham will rejoin the West Coast Main Line at Handsacre, with the super-fast new trains using existing infrastructure to Crewe and beyond, which is not only slow but already congested, particularly in the Stafford area where tracks go down to just one in each direction. Even more ludicrously, the new trains will not go as fast as the current Pendolinos, which can tilt, meaning they can take curves at a higher speed than conventional non-tilting trains. The new trains planned for HS2 do not have tilt because the assumption was that most of the route, they would be running on was largely straight.

A further problem with the current HS2 fiasco is that the logical southern terminus – Euston – is very much in doubt. The only commitment is to build as far as Old Oak Common, despite a huge amount of demolition work having taken place in the Euston area. The Government suggests that Euston will only go ahead if private sector investment can be found. The PAC report was highly sceptical that that investment can be attracted on the scale that would make the project viable.

Can anything be rescued from the mess? There is a desperate need to improve capacity on the West Coast Main Line (London to Glasgow) especially north of Rugby and have the entire route upgraded to four track, with speeds of at least 140 m/ph. Without that extra capacity there is a real risk that freight trains will have fewer paths than they have now.

Some of the land that was purchased for the abandoned Birmingham – Crewe section (Phase 2a), at a cost of £600 million, would be needed to provide some of that extra capacity, but the Government is pushing to sell it off. Sooner or later, much of that land will be needed, when some degree of common sense returns.

Further north, regional mayors Andy Burnham (Labour, Greater Manchester) and Andy Street (Conservative, West Midlands) are working together to try and come up with a plan to connect the two major conurbations. I hope they will come up with a better alternative than the original plans offered, with an over-engineered ultra high-speed railway (225 m/ph) that massively inflated costs and environmental damage. As Street himself admitted “a lot of the cost in HS2 has come from this very uncompromising point about the speed.”

There is no doubt that much better rail links between Manchester and Birmingham are needed. The current route is slow, and rail has, perhaps unsurprisingly, a very small share of the market, at just 4%.

The two mayors have brought together a high-powered team to look at options and there have been suggestions that the private sector could stump up the investment. However, it would be a big project and needs public investment on a large scale to get the best overall value. This would be exactly the sort of project that an incoming Labour Government, committed to a green economy, true ‘levelling-up’ of the country and creating jobs, should grasp with both hands. The recent announcement abandoning Labour’s green investment plans does not augur well. It is ironic that two regional politicians, Labour and Tory, are showing between them far more vision than any politician at national level.

Let the Public Accounts Committee have the last word: “HS2 is the biggest ticket item by value on the Government’s books for infrastructure projects. As such, it was crying out for a steady hand at the tiller from the start,” Dame Meg Hillier said. “But here we are after over a decade of our warnings on HS2’s management and spiralling costs – locked into the costly completion of a curtailed rump of a project and many unanswered questions and risks still attached to the delivery of even this curtailed project.”


  1. sadly there are two problems, and both have only one solution. Stop and reconsider.

    And I mean stop. Not a penny on the bill, not a yard of extra track.

    As Paul you rightly say, the line north of stafford has only one track either way. But its worse
    south of stafford, where there are four. Until Shugborough where the four tracks from Rugby to Stafford go down to the two through the Shugborough tunnel which were built in 1847.

    I go and look at the tunnel whenever I go to the National Trust property, and my mind boggles.

    The project was never a solution to the problem of the West Coast main line, and as the Scots
    point out, never went further north than Wigan. Or Leeds, which was scrapped a long time ago. Nothing for the North East which desperately needs more capacity.

    Which comes to the second problem, the failure of national planning. Burnham and Street are part of the problem, not part of the solution. The Adonis original scheme was to join up with Europe, which was scuppered by Brexit. So now we are spending more and more on less and less and if Euston is interfered with, millions of poeple including me will have our journeys damaged for something we will never see. And will not go through London to connect with Europe as Adonis wanted as the cost would be astronomical.

    Leave the disaster as a visible sign of our political incompetence, and have a royal commission on rebuilding the rail network to link all the areas never touched by HS2

    I will even accept aston villa paying back the £20m the club was given to slice a section off our training ground. Farage, who has never accepted HS2 (and here I agreed with UKIP) is the coming power when Labour fails in government. Cut off his route to glory.


    trevor fisher

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