Government abandons the S-shaped network

3 November, 2010

On October 4th 2010, the Coalition government abandoned the S-shaped high-speed rail (HSR) network. This had first been adopted in the historic September 2008 Conservative Party announcement that committed the party to the creation of a largely public sector funded HSR network.

This came as no great surprise, since all the evidence pointed to high costs from the cross-Manchester and cross-Pennine sections of the route, while the time savings using HSR between the North East and London would vanish due to the circuitous routing.

The only loss from this is a trans-Pennine HSR link, but Northern stakeholders want to see improvements in Manchester-Leeds (and Sheffield) connectivity brought about much more quickly anyway. The Northern Hub – a major investment in central Manchester – creates this opportunity in the nearer future.

Government released a report by HS2 Ltd which contrasted the case for an S-shaped network with a Y-shaped network. The S-shaped network lost out by delivering fewer benefits and offering no relief to the Midland Main Line (although it was reckoned to be less expensive, both to construct and operate).

In response, the Secretary of State for Transport wrote to the Chairman of HS2 Ltd allowing work to start on the design of the West Midlands to Leeds section of HSR route, with work to be complete by end 2011.

The real significance of this development lies not in the choice of letter-shape (the S-shaped network was never a runner) but in the implications for phasing. Whereas Lord Adonis, as Secretary of State for Transport in March this year had concluded that a full Y-shaped network should be the subject of a single parliamentary hybrid bill, it is now clear that a lesser and perhaps more realistic ambition has been adopted, with the London – West Midlands route to be the subject of a parliamentary bill first, with sections of route further north to be progressed under a separate bill(s) later.

The Financial Times revealed on 5th October, based on briefings from DfT that the sections of route north of the West Midlands were not expected to be complete until the mid-2030s (around 10 years later than the HS2 line from the West Midlands southwards), and indeed, work would not start on them until after 2020.

The HS2 Ltd report has some interesting detail on the routes further north and the assumptions that have been made at this early stage in their planning. The work on demand and benefits has been based on a service plan that has 18 train/hour on the stem of the Y-shaped network, 12 going north west and 6 north east. This is an intensity of HSR use not yet achieved anywhere in the world. However, cross-border services are limited, and there are no HSR services to Edinburgh at all in these preliminary assumptions.

The HS2 Ltd report has a welcome section summarising the views of stakeholders, including those of Greengauge 21. It describes the potential transformational of services to Sheffield. Actually, we have used the word transformational mainly in relation to a much simpler proposition that need not await the creation of the second (or third) phase of HSR build-out: the inclusion of a short connection to the Birmingham – Derby line as well to the West Coast Main Line in the Lichfield area in the first phase of HS2. This would be sufficient to achieve a 1h30 Sheffield – London journey time.

This proposition is part of a wider question about getting the maximum value out of the first phase of HS2, which, as is now clear, will be with us for some time before further HSR extensions come on stream. The question of connectivity with HS1, and with Heathrow and the classic network beyond the airport to the west and south, are expected to be the subject of further announcements by the Secretary of State in due course. They will be critical and offer the prospect of HS2 serving much more than the central London market, important though that is.