Phase 2b route largely confirmed, but questions remain

21 December, 2016

The latest command paper on HS2 saw the welcome confirmation of the majority of the Government’s preferred route for Phase 2b – the completion of the two legs of the Y-shaped route, from Crewe to Manchester to the west, and the West Midlands to Leeds in the east, with junctions onwards to the existing network.

The command paper marks a welcome shift in emphasis from new infrastructure to what can be achieved with it. The separate announcement of the ‘West Coast Partnership’ – the new franchise for the west coast to be let from 2019 – is also highly significant. This is where the specification and design of the initial high speed services for the first 3 to 5 years of HS2 operations will be set. This process will finalise commitments to HS2 services that will in part run on existing lines to serve Liverpool and Runcorn; Warrington, Wigan, Preston, Lancaster, Oxenholme, Penrith, Carlisle; and Lockerbie as well as Glasgow and, we presume, Edinburgh. It will also show what inter city services will run to/from London on the existing West Coast Main Line – although Sir David Higgins when speaking to the Transport Select Committee in December said that a full understanding of how ‘released capacity’ would be used was unlikely to be known before 2020.

Questions about the route of HS2 also still remain. Network Rail has been remitted to work up proposals for investment at the existing station at Crewe to form Crewe Hub. This is additional to the core HS2 scheme and beyond the HS2 budget, and decisions will be taken in 2017. For their part, HS2 Ltd has been remitted to undertake more detailed work on train planning for options to serve Stoke and Macclesfield via Handsacre Junction, a welcome move for which Greengauge 21 has long argued – but options to run beyond Macclesfield to Stockport and Piccadilly should be examined too. And it remains the case that the HS2 station at Manchester Airport is still subject to agreeing an “appropriate” local funding contribution.

And there is a longer list of questions with HS2’s eastern limb, where current plans would see no benefits for the East Midlands, Yorkshire and Humber and the North East until 6 or 7 years after HS2 services start running from North West England and the West Midlands. BBC analysis shows a £41bn to £15bn divide west to east across the Pennines in infrastructure spending plans for the next five years.

The command paper confirms that Leeds will be served with a T-shaped station integrating the HS2 platforms with the existing station, as originally proposed by Sir David Higgins in his Yorkshire Hub proposals back in 2015. The East Midlands Hub Station at Toton is also confirmed as is the connection between the eastern leg of HS2 and the East Coast Main Line south of York. But the route through South Yorkshire remains an open question.  Here, subject to consultation, Government is minded to confirm Sir David Higgins proposals for a new route.  Junctions with the existing network both north and south of Sheffield would be made so that Chesterfield and Sheffield Midland stations can be served via a loop in place of a station at Meadowhall and the original route through South Yorkshire.  The possibility of a replacement parkway station on the new route through South Yorkshire is under consideration too. The issues arising are set to be decided in 2017.

The best arrangement for HS2 in South Yorkshire is closely tied up with Transport for the North’s ambitions for the Northern Powerhouse where improvement in connectivity between the north’s major cities is a key consideration. The revised HS2 plan in Yorkshire makes possible a sub 30-minute journey time between the centres of the cities of Leeds and Sheffield, fulfilling one of TfN’s targets, and expanding the benefits of building HS2.  But this desirable outcome –  along with any through-Sheffield HS2 service –  is predicated on TfN (or Network Rail or other third parties) funding the works needed to complete the loop into Sheffield and upgrade Sheffield (Midland) station.

Sir David Higgins has since explained that flood risk considerations were a factor in ruling out a tunnelled route for HS2 through Sheffield. But once it is acknowledged that the solution might in part at least consist of upgrading existing lines, it might be that there are HS2 options with Sheffield on the line of route that have been overlooked.

With the now preferred through route now located further east along the M18 corridor, it is fair to ask why only a parkway-style station is being considered to serve the wider catchment north and east of Sheffield. After all, on the western side of the country, such an arrangement in Cheshire has been wisely rejected in favour of a new rail hub integrated with the existing station at Crewe. So why not consider a similar approach on the eastern side centred on Doncaster, which like Crewe, has excellent onward rail connectivity? Or would it be better value for money overall to retain the Meadowhall route (without the station) and shorten the length (and reduce the cost) of northside loop access into Sheffield Midland Station?

As the latest HS2 command paper notes, consideration needs to be given as well to the potential to extend services north of Sheffield to Barnsley and/or to Meadowhall and Rotherham. But again, it is fair to ask about extending services to Wakefield and Bradford as well.

Sir David Higgins also recently highlighted to the Transport Select Committee the opportunity to bring the whole of the eastern leg forward 3 years with an acceleration of the planned budget spend. Greengauge 21 has for a long time argued that a start could and should be made on HS2 across Yorkshire earlier still – and with the prize of transformed Sheffield – Leeds connectivity now on offer, this need not await the creation of new HS2 stations in the county.

Further north, current plans envisage that no HS2 services will be extended north of Newcastle, yet there might be a good case to do so and much will hinge on what service pattern remains on the East Coast Main Line post-HS2 Phase 2. Moreover, major towns and cities like Sunderland, Hull and Doncaster not served by HS2 will also want some early indications of the level and quality of direct services to London on the ECML post HS2. Unlike on the west coast, resolution through a new “partnership” franchise specification is not – at least yet –  on the cards.

The eastern limb of HS2 of course also provides a new route to Birmingham from Yorkshire and the North-East, so the future configuration of the Cross Country franchise is very much in the equation too. How much more useful it might be if there was a southwards facing connection from HS2 to the existing railway at Birmingham – as long sought by the West Midlands authorities. Then the eastern limb of HS2 could be used by cross country services operating (say) between Edinburgh and Bristol (via Newcastle, York, Leeds, Sheffield, Toton and Birmingham).

So there is still a significant way to go when it comes to Government finalising the eastern leg, and since the choices have impacts on the budgets of parties other than HS2 Ltd they cannot be solved by HS2 Ltd alone. As well as TfN for the northern section of route, Midlands Connect needs to have a strong voice on finalising decisions in the Midlands (for instance on connections between HS2 and the existing network).

The focus both east and west must increasingly be on the links with the existing network and the pattern of services that will actually use HS2 and serve places both on and beyond the Y – as well as on how train services on the West Coast, Midland and East Coast Main Lines, will be re-configured post HS2.