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2017 marks a huge step forward for HS2

The powers to build the first phase of HS2 – linking Euston with Birmingham Curzon Street and with the West Coast Main Line at Handsacre – achieved Royal Assent on 23rd February. As the accompanying Government announcement said, we can expect construction to start this Spring.

The background chatter will be how slowly the wheels turn towards implementation, but by the standards of our European or North American peer group, this is a good rate of progress. High-speed rail in Britain had no mainstream political support until 2008. Royal Assent nine years on is a case of leaps and bounds.

Those who have been involved in the day-by-day progression of the Parliamentary Bill over more than three years have no doubt allowed themselves a few moments to celebrate.  For all of those concerned – including those representing stakeholder interests such as Sarah Hayward, leader of Camden Council who recently announced she would be standing down, as well as those acting for HS2 Ltd – should be congratulated. This part attrition/part negotiation process is democratic planning in action.

So, where does this leave us – and what challenges lie ahead?

Most important, of course, is on-time and on-budget delivery of the Phase 1 project. There are perhaps two areas of significant risk. As TfWM head Laura Shoaf points out, one is in the West Midlands where there will be some – on its own manageable – disruption to the rail network; the problem being that in the same years and vicinity, major work is planned on the national motorway network too. But the greater concern surrounds Euston.

Here the interfaces between the major rail sector players, HS2 Ltd, TfL and Network Rail (and DfT) can all too easily take on the appearance of fault lines. It makes no sense to those living and working in the area that HS2 is a two-phase conception that could mean 16 years of construction work from now through to 2033 (Phase 2 completion date). That’s before adding in any related upgrade and rebuild of the ‘classic line’ part of the station and Crossrail 2 on as yet unknown timelines.

The answer to this problem – identified back in 2010 by Greengauge 21 and developed by Network Rail subsequently – is to take commuter services out of Euston by tying them into Crossrail, which is calling out for a second route to complement the Great Western limb west of Old Oak. Then a more efficient and single phase rebuild of Euston becomes entirely possible. The Phase 1 powers could be used and adapted to this end.

If nothing else, however, some of HS2 Ltd’s wider access and regeneration funding must surely be allocated to creating a proper surface link between Euston and St Pancras, suitable for longer distance travellers as well as commuters.

We can now look ahead to Phase 2 which itself has two stages. Phase 2a extends the new line to Crewe (to be reached in 2027, only one year after Phase 1 opens) and its Parliamentary Bill will be deposited in Autumn this year. Phase 2b then extends the western route onwards to a connection with the West Coast Main Line at Golborne and a new route into an HS2 station at Manchester Piccadilly.

Phase 2b eastern route is more substantial (roundly 200km) and branches off near Water Orton to its destinations of Leeds (where an integrated station is now planned) and Church Fenton to access York and – via the East Coast Main Line – the North East.

Since HS2’s remit was set, large-region transport and economic regeneration bodies have emerged. Transport for the North is likely to be the first to gain statutory powers – and a budget to oversee. For TfN, a key aim is to transform the links between the main northern cities. The busiest city-city connection is Sheffield Leeds and Phase 2b is shaping up to enable the ambition of a 30-minute centre to centre journey time to be met – hopefully with a 4 trains/hour service over this part of the HS2 route.

This may seem a modest achievement compared with the transformational journey time savings HS2 brings on routes from northern cities to London and Birmingham. But it represents a valuable broadening of the benefits that HS2 provides, as sought for by its Chairman, Sir David Higgins three years ago.

Next in line as a statutory ‘sub-national transport body’ is Midlands Connect, embracing the east and west Midlands. HS2 Phase 2b ought to be able to provide a transformation in Birmingham – Nottingham connectivity, but current plans fall short. Midlands Connect is seeking a large-scale time reduction on today’s tedious rail journey: 1h14 minutes between the largest cities of the West and East Midlands respectively.

Using the planned HS2 station at Toton doesn’t cut the mustard, what with a 30+ minute tram connection to Nottingham city centre or a transfer to some sort of heavy rail connecting shuttle service. The travel market would remain on the parallel M42/A42. But there is the possibility of a southern connection to the Midland Main Line where the HS2 route crosses it (at East Midlands Parkway). This could offer fast Birmingham – Nottingham (and Birmingham – Derby) rail connections. Additional cost would be a factor but then the cost of a major new station at Toton could perhaps be saved.

There is a choice in train service philosophy emerging here with Phase 2b. Once a view is taken that this new route, which has spare capacity, should meet within-region as well as to/from London connectivity aims, the case for direct city centre (rather than parkway) access becomes clear.

Now is the time to address these questions because later this year Phase 2b will start a two-year environmental assessment process.

In conclusion: 2017 marks a huge step forward for HS2. Phase 1 powers signal the start of the delivery phase. Phase 2a will start its passage through Parliament and outstanding decisions on Phase 2b could help broaden its value and support across the regions.

Onwards and upwards!

Jim Steer, Director, Greengauge 21