Why HS2 needs to go all the way

24 September, 2019

An assessment of Lord Berkeley’s ideas to scale back HS2

Now that he is appointed deputy Chairman of the Government’s Review of HS2, it is worth re-visiting Lord Berkeley’s opinions on the project. He wrote last year to every MP suggesting that either the additional costs for HS2 would have to be found or the whole scheme should be cancelled, and the money put into smaller schemes and focused on the North.

But he also suggested a third way, reducing HS2’s specification from ‘vanity to capacity’ as he put it. This would entail building a line from Old Oak Common in West London to Crewe only – that is to say, Phases 1 and 2a only, but scrapping all HS2 lines going into city centres. He would also have Handsacre Junction (where Phase 1 meets Phase 2a) removed from the project and top speeds reduced from 360/400km/h to 320km/h. The latter, he claimed, alone would save 30-40% of the capital cost.

His scale-back would create a specification rather more suitable for rail-freight – a subject of considerable passion for Lord Berkeley. But he is not alone in suggesting that all would be fine if HS2 reached no closer to central London that Old Oak Common/Wormwood Scrubs.

His views are in a category of attempts to find a way to keep some of the project’s benefits while cutting its costs dramatically. Here we look at his proposal since no doubt it – or some variant of it – will still be in Lord Berkeley’s mind in his role as deputy Chair of the Government’s Review of HS2 now underway.

We find his ideas to be self-defeating, impracticable and lacking credibility.

HS2 has Parliamentary Approval

The sections of HS2 that Lord Berkeley would retain have already acquired Parliamentary Powers – and the large part of it (Phase1 Euston-Birmingham and Handsacre Junction) has Royal Assent too – after years of tortuous Parliamentary scrutiny. Lord Berkeley, indeed, put up various alternatives to the HS2 plan for Euston at the project’s Committee stage in the Houses of Parliament, but none of them were accepted as being realistic or better. He is not, however, alone in wanting to see Euston dropped, although this makes even less sense now that the preparatory work, including the careful excavation of the ancient burial site, and much of the property acquisition, has taken place.

The Parliamentary Powers granted to HS2 Ltd were obtained for specific line-speeds, with environmental protection measures to suit, on the assumption that the line would be built in full into city centres. As we will show, much of the benefit of the project will be in jeopardy if only the country sections of Phases 1 and 2a are built, restricting heavily the HS2 services that could be operated. HS2 passengers would either need to interchange to access central London and to use existing overloaded commuter routes to access Birmingham and Manchester. With the benefits hugely diminished, it is not at all clear the economic case for the project would survive, and it would also surely be necessary to re-engage with petitioners against HS2 all over again. This of course will add to costs, and at least 5 years to project timescales, all to implement a lesser scheme.

It makes no sense to terminate HS2 at Old Oak Common

Old Oak Common was conceived as an interchange station so that HS2 travellers from the Midlands and North could access Heathrow Airport. With early evidence that few people would choose to access the airport in that fashion, and under pressure from the London Mayor and TfL, it became clear that the major benefit of a station at Old Oak Common was that it would allow passenger transfer from HS2 services to Crossrail as an alternative to travelling on to Euston (although a new station would need to be added to Crossrail).

But as designed, Old Oak HS2 station cannot reliably handle more than a low frequency start-up HS2  service of (say) 6 trains/hour. If it were instead to be a full-blown terminus, there would need to be a grade-separated (‘flying’) junction built in tunnel at its approaches and additional HS2 platforms provided. This would add very significantly to the station’s costs and erode further into the developable land adjoining the site. What would be saved in capital spend at Euston would – to a significant degree – be offset by extra costs at Old Oak.

It is also unclear whether Crossrail could accommodate the full passenger demand that a truncated HS2 would create. It has been estimated that 30% of morning peak HS2 passengers would choose to alight at Old Oak Common with the remaining 70% travelling on to Euston, provided that option remains available. Without HS2 to Euston, there is literally no other choice for onward travel, except Crossrail or crowding onto GWR services at Old Oak Common at their peak loading point on their final approach into Paddington. This in turn would also mean adding 4-5 minutes travel time onto all GWR services into Paddington to accommodate the extra station stop. Amongst other problems, adding ten minutes onto the London turn-round time of GWR services would add to its rolling stock fleet requirements; it would also reduce the journey time savings that the GW electrification project is belatedly set to bring. For South West England and South Wales, this is a bad idea indeed.

Walk links can be created from the HS2 station at Old Oak to London Orbital services – and TfL has also announced plans to get a station on the line nearer to the HS2 station than is otherwise available at Willesden Junction. But these passenger dispersion measures hardly compare with the onward distribution available at Euston, which has multiple bus lines and six Underground lines (Circle, Metropolitan, Hammersmith and City, all accessible via a planned new direct walkway from the station concourse; the West End and City branches of the Northern Line, and the Victoria Line). Euston also offers, in addition, London Overground services and the prospect of Crossrail 2, or perhaps, at least, the lower cost private sector promoted scheme to provide a fast link from Euston to the City and Canary Wharf; either of these schemes would create a new link with King’s Cross/St Pancras with its additional cross-London connections via the Piccadilly line and Thameslink, Eurostar and other main line services.

Euston also offers access to new cycle routes in central London and last, but not least, the opportunity for HS2 travellers to reach a number of London attractions/destinations on foot. In transport terms, Euston is sustainable, Old Oak Common is not.

It is also the case that inevitably, for those unfamiliar with London’s geography, being dropped into a Zone 2/3 station on the edge of an industrial estate with the extra time and expense for onward travel from Old Oak would detract from the overall attraction of travelling on the more reliable, faster, service that HS2 otherwise offers. HS2 customer benefits would be reduced accordingly.

HS2’s Euston programme director Rob Carr has also spoken out recently on this subject writing in Building magazine on September 4th. Reinforcing our own assessment Carr said: “You’d have to redesign Old Oak Common station. That’s at least a two-year hit in design terms. Even if you could build the redesigned station, imagine 18 trains each with 1,000 people getting off and getting on the Crossrail trains, which haven’t been designed for that. It would be madness.

“We are talking billions potentially in terms of [the] business case impact of delaying London to Birmingham because we had to redesign the station at Old Oak Common.”

Carr said the 11 HS2 platforms at Euston allowed it to act as a “pressure valve” for the line, saying if Old Oak Common, which only has six, replaced it as the capital’s terminus, it would either have to be redesigned or the number of services halved.

He said the potential to redesign Old Oak Common was further limited by the fact the station platforms are 20m deep and sandwiched between the Greater Western mainline and the Crossrail depot.

Carr also pointed to the wider implications of cancelling the £1.5bn scheme at Euston. He said: “You’d then forego the huge development value, £3bn-£4bn, the 1,700 homes, the 19,000 jobs that you would generate.”

Dropping links into City Centres would damage local economies

In short, termination at Old Oak Common to save costs is an impractical suggestion: it risks overloading Crossrail, it will wipe out a large portion of the customer benefits of the project, it will put a time penalty on all GWR trains to Paddington, it will require a significantly larger and more costly station to be built at Old Oak Common, and this will mean less developable land available for new housing.

Especially in Birmingham, it is already apparent how the private sector is investing to take advantage of HS2. Cutting off the links into Birmingham and Manchester city centres (Phase 1 and Phase 2b respectively) will be a tremendous blow to both cities. Both are building their economies and regeneration plans around HS2. And each city is at the hub of a regional economy.

The West Midlands and the North West are the two regions with by far the highest growth in rail commuting over the last 20 years (+247% and +173%respectively). They need more commuting capacity that will be partly brought about by HS2 (complemented by city region investments in extended light rail networks) as well as the economic stimulus that greater intercity connectivity will bring.

In practice, it will only be possible to add in the full set of new HS2 services to the centre of Manchester by removing existing trains. In the case of Birmingham, Lord Berkeley offered up a solution: implement long-standing plans (dating back to the 1930s) to four-track the line between Coventry and Birmingham and provide a connection to it from HS2 at Birmingham International. But is this a practical solution?

Unfortunately for the credibility of Lord Berkeley’s proposal, the answer has to be no. There is  a reason why in 80 years this scheme has not been implemented.

Four-tracking this line would require huge disruption both to existing rail users and adjoining property owners: the existing two-track line passes through a well-established suburban area, with the railway right-of-way abutted by housing almost throughout. Widening could not be carried out without major line closures and at significant cost.

But the crunch is New Street station. On its tunnelled approaches there are already four tracks, but these are operated at capacity, because over these lines not only must trains from the Coventry corridor reach the city centre, but also those from the Lichfield, Tamworth, Nuneaton, Solihull and King’s Norton corridors. Tunnelling an extra two tracks into New Street and through the complex set of junctions on the station approaches would require a massive and disruptive project that would dwarf the scale of works needed to provide HS2 access to its planned city centre terminus at Curzon Street. Four tracking the Coventry corridor shy of New Street and its approaches is no solution.

But at least in the case of Birmingham, Lord Berkeley was able to put up an alternative, however flawed. He had nothing to offer MPs concerned about how Manchester would work with a full HS2 service. Sheffield and Leeds, the centres of both of which would get full HS2 services in HS2 Phase 2b, are only offered investment in existing lines (Midland Main Line, the cross-country route between Birmingham and Leeds and the East Coast Main Line). But such investments exclude creating the additional capacity and expansion at city centre stations needed to make use of improvements made along rural route sections.

Improving the capability of rail networks into the nation’s major city centres is a crucial part of HS2 Plans in England – and in Scotland, emerging plans for Glasgow Central and Edinburgh Waverley. Stimulating and supporting the growth of our major regional cities that perform so poorly in economic terms compared with equivalent cities across Europe is surely a national priority, especially as they serve as hubs for wider regional economies.

Lord Berkeley, in his letter to MPs, said that ‘city regeneration was not linked to HS2, it can be achieved by enhancement of the classic railway which already possesses the best locations for stations’. Maybe, but these existing city centre stations and their approaches are full and unable to handle expected growth. Regeneration brings economic growth and investment, typically from both public and private sectors. It creates a need for more rail capacity into city centres, to serve the already strong growth in regional rail travel.

In Leeds, the new HS2 station will be conjoined to the existing station but have its own new approach tracks. In Sheffield, HS2 services will use existing tracks to reach the existing city centre station (which will need modernisation and upgrading). In Manchester, new HS2 platforms will be added to the existing Piccadilly station and have their own (tunnelled) approach tracks.

There is always a choice between expanding existing city centre stations and building new ones. What doesn’t work is doing neither, pretending the capacity challenge doesn’t exist in our major urban centres: this is actually where it bites hardest. Ducking these investment choices undermines city regeneration. Development pressure instead will be re-ignited instead on urban fringes, further triggering urban sprawl, consuming more land, some of it in green belts, and creating more car dependency at a time when more than ever we need to increase the role of electrified rail as a central part of a decarbonised national transport system.

Dropping the connection at Handsacre

The inclusion of Handsacre Junction (situated just north of Lichfield) in HS2 plans was originally needed to provide a tie-in back to the national network for HS2 Phase 1. With Phase 1 and Phase 2a now on a similar time trajectory, there would be a through route from Crewe to London and this junction would not be needed to serve its originally intended purpose. Lord Berkeley suggests dropping it would save £2bn. So, is this a good idea?

To which the answer has to be no, if serving Stafford, Stoke-on-Trent and Macclesfield by HS2 is considered important, because this key string of Staffordshire towns & cities can only be served by running HS2 trains over Handsacre Junction.

The determination and passion of the Stoke authorities to seize the benefits of HS2 was made very apparent during the early debate about the route that HS2 should follow. In the end, the decision was made to route HS2 via Crewe rather than Stoke, a city with a hugely proud heritage, desperately in need of an economic stimulus. Lord Berkeley’s estimate of £2bn is a small price to pay to extend the benefits of HS2 across Staffordshire (a county that the new line has to traverse) and to Stoke-on-Trent. Dropping the connection at Handsacre would be deeply regrettable and would be resented for generations to come. It would consign Stoke-on-Trent to a poorly connected back-channel.

Conclusion

Saving costs on HS2 is a perfectly legitimate and worthy objective. Claims that dropping the top line speed to 320km/h could save 30-40% of project cost are not credible, however. The design speed of HS2 trains is 360 km/h, and the alignment of HS2 can only support this speed in some locations. All of the longer tunnels, for example, are already designed for lower line speeds, following cost:benefit  trade-offs HS2 Ltd made several years ago.

The suggested savings are implausible and – as has been explained here – so too are Lord Berkeley’s other suggestions on curtailing the project to save cost and focus – as he sees it – on key capacity needs. Unfortunately, he doesn’t recognise that capacity requirements extend into city centres. Addressing them is a commercial imperative. No train service operator would choose to terminate trains at Old Oak Common rather than Euston. In any event, such an approach, while saving the cost of building out HS2’s station at Euston (where the preparatory work is nearing completion), does not come without additional costs at Old Oak Common (which would need to be a much larger station) offsetting savings at Euston.

Having HS2 reach city centres is essential for urban regeneration; to expanding commuting capacity; and to providing connectivity for onward travel on other lines that radiate from city centres. This is the essential component of any sensible railway network design – a linked set of hubs and spokes.

Lord Berkeley’s cut-back HS2 plan would mean that the benefits that the North is seeking from HS2 would be delayed by 5 years or more. Northern Powerhouse Rail would be undermined. Currently planned HS2 infrastructure between Leeds and Sheffield would be lost, along with half of the route from Liverpool to Manchester, removing key parts of the overall NPR plan.

In the Midlands, the exciting new Midlands Rail Engine plans would have to be abandoned. Stoke-on-Trent would lose its planned HS2 service. Birmingham’s urban regeneration would be set-back, and the East Midlands would lose all the benefits that HS2 brings.

This is why local and regional authorities and business groups support the HS2 ‘all the way’ campaign.

For Scotland, the incentive to complement time savings and capacity gains provided by HS2 in England would be diminished. How many Scottish travellers would take a HS2 service that ended at Old Oak in preference to flying to nearby Heathrow, as so many do today? A key advantage of rail over short-haul air travel – direct access to the heart of the city – would be lost.

It is also clear that cutting back HS2’s plans would not allow the project to be completed sooner. Indeed, the opposite is true, since it would be necessary, as we have shown, to re-start the parliamentary approval processes following (as necessary) design changes. Completion of HS2 would therefore be even later than on the recently revised timeline.

This article was published in full in RAIL, issue 888 September – October 2019, pp32-35