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Building a better understanding of HS2

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Even though Parliament has expressed its clear resolve to progress HS2 with a 350 to 34 vote in favour of the Paving Bill in the closing weeks of 2013, there is much ground to be recovered in terms of public support. Greengauge 21 believes that some key issues still need to be better understood..

The capacity case has been articulated more fully and clearly in the Government’s Strategic Case for HS2 published in October 2013. (R1) Hopefully most people now realise that HS2 isn’t simply about saving a few minutes on the journey between London and Birmingham.

But what is less easily appreciated is why the capacity challenge should be addressed by a new north-south high-speed line. Don’t other parts of the country also face capacity limitations, some will ask? Are there no problems on east-west routes for instance? Why is the West Coast corridor singled out for the substantial investment that is entailed in a completely new railway line?

If there is no coherent answer to these questions, it is inevitable that some people will continue to suggest that HS2 is a solution chasing a problem.

So does government recognise there is a nation-wide rail capacity problem that needs to be addressed, one to which HS2 can play a part, alongside other measures? If so, where is the evidence it does so and where is the national programme of capacity projects?

To this the answer is yes there is indeed a programme to address capacity (and other) needs across the rail network, but it runs only up to 2019.

HS2 is a scheme that comes to fruition in the 2020s (and the 2030s). For this longer term planning horizon, we can look to DfT’s recently published draft ‘National Policy Statement for National Networks’. This makes clear in general policy terms that rail capacity is a primary area of concern for Government; that this applies across the nation; that incremental improvements will be needed to the rail network; and where these are insufficient, new lines may be required and these may take the form of new high-speed lines. (R2) But this doesn’t amount to a long term programme of wider capacity measures alongside HS2 – a development that Greengauge 21 would encourage. Network Rail’s Long Term Planning Process now in hand might serve as a useful basis.

Meanwhile, it is instructive to consider the extent of the capacity measures already in hand, funded and under construction across the rail network, to be delivered this decade. They are themselves transformational and put the plans for a new north-south high-speed railway into context. They are (in summary):

  • A new cross-connected regional express network across London, with Thameslink forming the north-south route and Crossrail the east-west route, with both routes extending deep into the South East hinterland
  • Four further east-west rail electrification projects which will each increase capacity and bring other benefits:
    • the Great Western Main Line (Swansea/Bristol/Oxford – London)
    • the East West Rail Link – restoring a lost connection between Oxford and Milton Keynes and Bedford
    • the main TransPennine route linking Liverpool and Blackpool to the west with Manchester, Leeds and York and Selby to the east
    • the Edinburgh to Glasgow (Queen Street) electrification project
    • Large scale capacity projects to unlock network bottlenecks:
      • At Reading, where in a £0.75bn scheme, a new expanded station and grade-separated junctions are being provided
      • The Northern Hub, centred on Manchester and unlocking the potential for more train services across the whole of the north of England
      • Expanded commuter train fleets – both to match the infrastructure projects in London and to expand commuter fleets (for example on the London Midland  network serving London and Birmingham) and the South West Trains  fleet operating to/from Waterloo
      • New Intercity trains for the East Coast and Great Western Main Lines, bringing substantial extra seating capacity.

Overall, an additional 120,000 peak period commuters into London will be accommodated from these committed measures. Capacity improvements are planned that will relieve pressure on services at each of the main London terminus stations: Liverpool Street, London Bridge, Blackfriars, Charing Cross, Waterloo, Victoria, Paddington, St Pancras and Kings Cross.

Many of the committed measures will inseparably provide other, wider benefits, just as HS2 also offers. There will be much better connectivity across the North of England, for example, with journey times typically being cut by 20-30% for many  east-west journeys between the major cities of the north. A new project at the design stage will give direct access to Heathrow Airport from the west, taking 30 minutes of airport access times. And many other projects – some large like Midland Main electrification and others smaller (such as re-doubling the track between Swindon and Gloucester) will bring widespread capacity and other benefits.

So, the question of whether a new north-south high-speed line is the right step for the country, needs to be considered in this context, where a whole host of measures are already committed to address capacity challenges right across the nation. While it may not have been articulated in a joined-up long-term strategic plan, it is taking shape as a set of measures tailored to the circumstances of different parts of the national rail network.

However, one crucial area of the national rail network for which there are no major plans to increase capacity (beyond what can be achieved by further lengthening of trains to the maximum practicable) is the West Coast Main Line corridor – a route that links many of our largest cities – London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow (and Edinburgh). This is the busiest route in the country for freight and for intercity travel and it carries large numbers of commuters into several major cities. Euston is experiencing the fastest growth rate of all the London rail terminals.

This is a capacity challenge at a corridor level. Much has been achieved through the West Coast Route Modernisation project over the last thirteen years. But as the route is once again reaching its maximum usable capacity, the only answer is to provide a new line. The best version is one that takes away the fastest non-stop passenger trains from the current West Coast Main Line and frees it up to carry more commuter trains, more freight trains and introduces services to places which would dearly like to have direct London services that cannot be currently accommodated (places such as Shrewsbury, Wrexham and Blackpool). That’s just what HS2 does.

Other places in the West Coast corridor– regarded as secondary destinations in the current timetable – will also get much better services because of the capacity liberated on the West Coast Main Line: Lichfield, Tamworth, Nuneaton, Rugby, Milton Keynes, Northampton are examples. Commuter capacity into London Euston, for example, will be expanded by a whopping 138%. (R3) But then this is the commuter route serving England’s largest housing growth area – of Milton Keynes/South Midlands.

A fully-specified long term investment plan we may not yet have; but we do have a coherent growth policy for our railways – with HS2 at its heart.



(R2) See Department for Transport Consultation on a Draft National Policy Statement for the National Road and Rail Networks, December 2013, p13.

(R3) HS2 Strategic Case for HS2 DfT, October 2013 Figure 3.3