Paul Salveson offers thoughts on the announcement on HS2, the Integrated Rail Plan and more U-turns
The response from across the country, and particularly from politicians in the North, has been one of outrage – cries of ’betrayal’ etc. And of course it’s a good stick to beat Johnson and the Tory government with. It is a massive U-turn. But sometimes U-turns are necessary, and we’re in a different world now than we were before the pandemic, with travel patterns changed, probably for good. Arguably, HS2 was very poor value two years ago; it is even more so now. And I’m talking about ‘value’ in the wider social and economic sense. That’s quite apart from the huge environmental damage that would/will be done during construction.
Speaking personally, I have never been keen on HS2, a highly over-engineered scheme which would benefit the major city centres (London in particular) at the expense of everywhere else. It’s interesting that the Integrated Rail Plan admits that the plans for HS2 to Leeds would have given many towns a worse service. It’s bizarre that there’s so much adverse comment coming from Yorkshire people about the plan when actually they do quite well out of it, on the whole. There has been a huge amount of ill-informed tosh talked about the announcement; the fact is the original HS2 project had long since veered out of control with costs mounting to astronomic levels. Add on the effects of the pandemic and those long-term changes in travel patterns (much less business travel, but more leisure journeys), and a fundamental review of the project became necessary.
There is quite a lot that has not so far been in the public domain and it is worth looking at the full document for yourselves. My own view is that it’s an improvement on what was on the table before but still raises many questions. Taking HS2 into Manchester Piccadilly with a new six-platform surface-level station – working out a route from Manchester Airport, even if in tunnel for most of the way – will be a massive challenge. Will it do anything to resolve the problems of the congested Castlefield corridor across Manchester? Probably not, and it will be a long time coming anyway. Remember that Stockport, Macclesfield and Stoke all lose out from HS2 with fewer and probably slower trains. There is reference in the plan to one HS2 service an hour serving them.
When people say that the main benefit of HS2 is that it frees up capacity, that is only true in part, and assumes that many places will have fewer trains as the London services divert to the HS2 route, missing out places such as Stockport, Stoke and Rugby. In the IRP it recognises that, had the eastern leg to Leeds gone ahead, many towns and cities would have had a poorer train service (Wakefield, Doncaster, Newark etc.). But the same applies to the western leg!
It sounds like Crewe will keep its existing station (unless I missed something), offering much better links to services to North Wales, East Midlands via Stoke etc., with a link back onto the HS2 route into Manchester Airport and the city centre. It keeps its options open about taking HS2 services northwards, suggesting that the original ‘Golborne loop’ may be scrapped. So, a likely scenario is that HS2 will head north on existing WCML tracks, which could be enhanced, with Warrington being a major interchange with ‘Northern Powerhouse Rail’. Folk in Wigan have always assumed HS2 would be a benefit, but I have my doubts and suspect that Wigan will not feature in HS2 stopping patterns (it never has done as far as I can see). Warrington, Preston and Lancaster will benefit; Wigan has a job to do in getting HS2 services to stop there. It might just help make the case for its own bi-level station connecting Wallgate and the North West with better integration between local and InterCity/HS2 services.
There’s another issue that should not be overlooked. Every opinion poll conducted on the merits of HS2 shows a majority of people in the UK as a whole firmly against it, especially in the North and Midlands – who are supposed to be the main beneficiaries. Only in London does it actually have more support than opposition, which says a lot. A YouGov poll this year showed support for HS2 across the UK at 25% with 39% against and 11% ‘don’t know’ – the rest were neither for nor against. In London, the only region in support, 30% were in favour and 27% against, showing a large drop from the previous year. Another UK-wide poll, conducted by Statista, shows 23% in favour and 42% in opposition.
A survey published by Redfield and Wilton Strategies in July found that general awareness of HS2 is high. It found that “[a]midst this considerable awareness of the project, there is substantial opposition to it: a plurality (43%) of Britons aware of HS2 say they oppose it, compared to 29% who support HS2 and 25% who neither support nor oppose it. In April and May 2021, we found a similar 45% of those in the West Midlands metropolitan area who said they were familiar with HS2 were in opposition to the railway project.”
The pollsters also found that people view it as poor value for money: “a majority (56%) of Britons aware of HS2 say that it is a bad investment that does not represent good value for money, whereas a quarter (25%) believe it is a good investment and 18% are unsure. Following such statements, 48% of this sample think that HS2 should be scrapped and 33% think that it should not be scrapped, while 19% do not know. This demonstrates that opposition to HS2 is strong, with a plurality of Britons preferring to see HS2 scrapped than its continued development.”
The professional magazine, The Engineer, undertook a poll in November 2020 which found that 77% of its readers wanted HS2 cancelled with only 23% in favour of keeping it.
From my own experience, people who oppose HS2 are not petrol heads who want the money poured into new roads, nor Thatcherites who hate public spending. They want the money to go into improving public transport, rail, tram and bus.
All the evidence suggests that HS2 is unpopular and people think it should be scrapped. The sums of money we’re talking about – £100 billion or more – are eye-watering. The case for HS2 before the pandemic was flimsy to say the least. Today, it’s non-existent.
Finally, given the amounts of money involved, HS2 highlights the lack of democracy in the UK. In Switzerland, with its excellent transport network, major projects are subject to a popular vote. HS2 cries out for a referendum. I’m 100% sure that people would vote for it to be scrapped and the money put to better use in improving the rail network as a whole.