Imagine a slightly different world. The railways are being run by a rather impressive pair, Andy, the ambitious and media-savvy transport secretary and Fred, his very pro-rail permanent secretary at the Department for Transport. The 2010s, in our imaginary world, have been a tough time for the railways but there has been agreement for a new high speed line running from London to Birmingham and Manchester on which work has started. But over on the other side of the hills, there has been dither with no clear plan, despite pressure from local MPs, especially those recently elected Tories in Red Wall seats.
Then Hey Presto, Andy and Fred, our dynamic duo, announce a great new plan for railways on the east side of the country. They had been looking at a range of scenarios and have finally decided on a complex set of improvements to existing lines and a couple of chunks of new route. There are quite a few goodies. There will be a new chunk of high speed line between Birmingham and East Midlands Parkway, the electrification of the Midland Main Line, a new tram system and an expanded through station for Leeds, a series of improvements with the possibility of 140 MPH running on parts of the East Coast and the completion of electrification of the Transpennine route. On the west side, there is to be a new stretch of high speed line between Warrington, Manchester and Marsden in Yorkshire, and either the electrification of the Fiddlers Ferry line or a new line from Warrington to Liverpool
So imagine if this had been announced as a plan for a series of new schemes rather than a replacement for a chunk of HS2. While there would hardly be rejoicing in the streets of the towns and cities of the North and Midlands, there would have been a lot of support from local politicians and business. But instead, because this announcement is seen as a cut to a previous scheme rather than as a proposal for considerable investment in the railways, the coverage has been dominated by what often seem like pre-packaged complaints about HS2. Given that most of HS2 and a few new chunks are to be built, can we really describe this as a betrayal of the North and can the hue and cry over the plan really be justified. Indeed, on the western side, there is to be an increase in capacity, something that HS2 advocates should surely support? Moreover, guess which region is really being betrayed: London, whose population make the mistake of voting for the wrong side, is facing unprecedented cuts to both bus and rail services in the continuing battle between City Hall and Whitehall.
The previous plan for HS2 was badly flawed on the eastern side. It managed to miss out all three significant towns in the East Midlands, build a totally useless station at Toton in the middle of nowhere, create a messy situation in Sheffield and its surrounds where the project is about as popular as last week’s fish and chips, and end up at a terminus station in Leeds that would have been massively expensive. Indeed, the proliferation of terminus stations and parkways was always one of the biggest flaws of the HS2 project but at least East Midlands does have an airport next door and is an existing station!
Nottingham is a double beneficiary of this new plan given both the electrification of the Midland Main Line and direct HS2 services. Indeed, this plan envisages HS2 trains running on conventional lines to several more destinations. This is sometimes criticised because it will only work well if the lines are properly upgraded but, in fact, this greatly improves connectivity and is to be welcomed. The Integrated Rail Plan document indeed points out that services to several places such as
such as Doncaster, Grantham and Wakefield will be much better than under the previous plan. Again, HS2 supporters will argue that the existing excellent direct trains to such towns would be retained once the new high speed line will be complete. However, this assumes that there would still be the same number of services to these trains, even though people heading from London to the key destinations such as Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds would use HS2 routes. Therefore, as Lord Berkeley, the dissenting voice on Doug Oakervee’s review of HS2 has pointed out, services to these intermediate destinations would undoubtedly be cut back when HS2 is completed because they would require enormous subsidies to be maintained.
It is noticeable that away from the front line policed by the HS2 diehards, there has been a more sensible reaction. In New Civil Engineer, Alistair Lenczner, expressed support for the revised plan, saying ‘ the IRP proposal to take a high-speed eastern spur as far as the existing East Midlands Parkway station is sensible as it allows high-speed trains to run into Nottingham or Derby on the existing Network Rail lines’. Interestingly he is more critical of the fact that Curzon Street station in Birmingham has still been left as a standalone station with no connections to the existing network.
Professor Paul Salveson, a former rail executive, and a strong advocate for increased resources for the North, also welcomes the new plan, arguing in his blog that HS2 ‘was never popular amongst us simple-minded Northern folk who would much prefer a bus shelter outside the Ainsworth Arms to avoid getting soaked waiting for the 526 bus’ a similar argument made by Boris Johnson in the introduction to the IRP who wrote: ‘
Of course, there are several negatives. The genesis of the scheme is the desire of the Treasury to cut back on spending on the railways and the supposed £96bn available is mostly either already announced or a rather vague promise to commit parts of future budgets that are dependent on the generosity of future chancellors. It is difficult to estimate how much money has been saved as there is so much uncertainty, but the widely quoted figure of £36bn seems rather high. The timeline is vague in the extreme as the Plan recognises: ‘many schemes are at a very early stage of design. Dates for delivery will be subject to ongoing development and approval of these schemes’ business case and relevant consents’. However, there will be an imperative that people in the Midlands and North, those flaky Red Wall voters, see signs of progress by the time of the general election even if it is just detailed plans and financial commitment. While some of the detail in the plan is optimistic, and there are big questions over delivery times and the availability of the finance, parts of it are better thought out than the original HS2 scheme and it is more honest about the negatives as well as the positives of high speed rail.
Inevitably, there are losers. It could be argued that Leeds is, and Bradford, which had hoped for a direct Manchester connection, certainly is – though the new line there would have been extremely expensive. But there will always be winners and losers in these plans. In this more sane and rational world, what, indeed, would the coverage have looked like? Certainly, it would have been more measured. Andy and Fred would have received praise for committing extensive government resources to rail at a time when the industry has been ravaged by the effects of the pandemic and the consequent changes to travel patterns which may well turn out to represent a permanent shift. Therefore, above all this package would have been seen as a vote of confidence in the industry at a time when it was most needed.
And is it so terrible that the Treasury has forced a rethink when the pandemic and the concomitant growth in the use of technology have, to say the least, put into question assumptions about the business case that is supposed to underpin HS2? Supporters of HS2 have never addressed the question of what to do about the soaring costs of the project particularly at a time of reduced railway demand, or replied to my questions about whether it was worthwhile at any cost.
In fact, Treasury parsimony has not been the only midwife of this plan. The Oakervee review specifically argued that there should be greater integration between HS2 and the rest of the railway, and the National Infrastructure Commission, which was surprisingly critical of HS2, put forward pretty much the same argument. Then there is indeed the effect of Covid. Given that the pandemic has blown a planetary sized hole in HS2’s business case and last week office occupancy was around 21 per cent, this continue commitment to most of the project is a remarkable act of faith in the railways.
Therefore, while it would be fanciful that anything which comes out of a government led by a Mr Bumble whose attention span – and this comes from an inside source – can be counted in seconds rather than minutes would amount to a totally coherent, strategic, well-thought out plan. However, this is an improvement on past efforts and deserves serious consideration both inside and outside the industry rather than just shouts of betrayal amid much doom and gloom. There are indeed tough times ahead for the railways, but it is the cuts to opex not capex – in other words in plain English operating costs rather than capital investment – that are of most concern since train operating companies have all just been told to cut their budgets by 10 per cent or more for next year.
Inevitably, those who disagree with this analysis will point out that I am a long time critic of HS2. I realise that some readers would enjoy using my head at a coconut shy. But to counter this, I would merely say that the design of the HS2 scheme was flawed in numerous ways which its supporters always failed to address through fear of giving hostages to fortune. Now, perhaps, rather than arguing about whether there are enough platforms at Euston to accommodate the highly fanciful 18 (or 17) trains per hour, they might start to accept these faults and work towards ways of addressing them and consequently saving money in what is a bloated scheme. As I always argued, HS2 sucked so much of the energy of the railway that other, more modest and sensible schemes, were sidelined. Surely even if there is disagreement over HS2, the more holistic approach to railway investment set out in this admittedly flawed plan is far superior to the ‘line on a map’ approach that has characterised HS2 from the outset.