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What lies ahead for HS2?

In the final session of last week’s Transport Times UK Rail Summit, chair Professor David Begg reflected on the aim set out by the Northern Way for HS2 back in Autumn 2009 – to get Leeds as well as Manchester with a transformed connection to London in a similar timescale.

The following is Greengauge 21’s response:

The equality of timescale ambition is long lost. While North West England will benefit from Phase 1 and 2a in the first half of the 2030s, as the conference interview with HS2 CEO Mark Thurston made clear, the Eastern Arm of HS2 from the Midlands to Leeds can only come later, hopefully by the 2040s. And when it does come, the western arm will already be using at least ⅔ of the available onward London HS2 train paths. The Eastern Arm risks being the poor relation if its focus is on London.

For these reasons alone, it is worth thinking again about the purpose of the Eastern Arm. And the question of budget will have to be faced too: high-speed rail doesn’t come cheap. For the National Infrastructure Commission, charged with identifying the ‘rail needs’ of the English Midlands and North, the budget sum is this: can the combined cost of HS2 Phase 2b + Northern Powerhouse Rail + Midlands Engine Rail be accommodated? The answer looks likely to be no – and that’s before accounting for any investment needed to get Edinburgh/Glasgow-London journey times down towards 3 hours – so important to maximise the carbon savings that HS2 can provide.

Of course, it is worth arguing for a Keynesian uplift in investment budget, or at least for lifting the arbitrary percentage of future years’ GDP that Treasury applies (a limit which bakes in national under-performance against better invested economies such as Germany’s, and which will be automatically scaled back with the downward revisions in our forecast national GDP). But what if, as seems likely, budget constraints do bite?

The Eastern Limb re-visited

As conceived, the Eastern limb set out to achieve the Northern Way ambition of a superfast Leeds-London journey time. Maybe this was taken too simplistically 10-11 years ago. Key intermediate cities with just as large journey to work catchments – Nottingham, Derby, Sheffield – are each bypassed, and Newcastle only gains if a Leeds bypass is also built. Even then, its journey time gains from using HS2 instead of the East Coast Main Line to Kings Cross are modest.

The question of better links between the regional cities of the Midlands and the North has come into focus thanks to the work of Transport for the North and Midlands Connect. The busiest city-city commuter flow in the North of England – Sheffield-Leeds – and the most important connection across the Midlands, linking the largest cities of the East and West Midlands (Nottingham and Birmingham), could be served by two separate sections of the planned eastern HS2 arm.

A recent Greengauge 21 report argues that these two sections of the Eastern Arm should be adapted to achieve these aims and prioritised in a phased implementation approach (see What is the Purpose of the Eastern Arm, Greengauge 21). The question of how best (or indeed whether) to implement the remaining central part of the Eastern arm (broadly: Nottingham-Sheffield) needs further study. For this, there are some interesting options to explore.

But it isn’t simply a matter of implementing agreed infrastructure in stages. The purpose of the Eastern Arm needs to be re-thought before the Parliamentary Powers process is started in a few years’ time. Clarity of objectives is all-important. Would West Yorkshire rather see a super-fast connection to London from Leeds (in the 2040s) or a much earlier set of improvements in the city’s linkages to Sheffield and Nottingham, with capacity released on the existing network to improve the connectivity of Bradford and Wakefield too?

Capacity release does not flow readily from city-city high-speed shuttle services such as those planned for HS2 between Leeds-London Euston and Leeds-Birmingham Curzon Street. The strongest non-London intercity rail corridor in the UK runs NE-SW: Edinburgh-Newcastle-Darlington-York-Leeds-Sheffield-Derby-Birmingham-Bristol/Cardiff-Exeter-Plymouth. The HS2 Eastern Arm overlaps with the central part of this corridor between Leeds and Birmingham, but unless many direct city-city connections are to be cut, HS2 high-speed shuttle services cannot replace existing NE-SW intercity services. And this rules out valuable release of track capacity on the existing network.

So a key adaptation is needed: at either end, HS2’s Eastern Arm needs to plug into the existing network. Then NE-SW corridor trains can run on the new fast infrastructure as it comes on stream. This provides the twin benefits of (i) a much wider spread of journey time gains from HS2 (for South West England and South Wales, for example) and (ii) a release of capacity on overcrowded parts of the national rail network.

In effect, the HS2 network will then become an X-shape rather than a ‘Y’. The Eastern limb will speed up Sheffield/Nottingham-London journeys just as soon as its south-end section is built. But its value won’t just rest on London connections; instead HS2 will be genuinely creating the nationwide high-speed network Britain needs – resilient to the effects of climate change and inter-connecting all of the country’s major cities.