what to do about HS2?


Whether they like it or not, the new transport ministers who will take over after the election will have to face up to what to do about HS2. And quickly. There are two certainties – well almost certain given the chequered history of the scheme.

The first is that the initial section between Old Oak Common and Birmingham Curzon Street will be completed, sometime in the early 2030s. There is no alternative. Despite the fact that it needs at least another £20bn to be completed, so much has been built and so much of the countryside devastated that to abandon the scheme is both politically and physically impossible. Imagine the two mile Colne Valley Viaduct and the nearby 10 mile tunnel being abandoned to be left as artefacts that some future civilisation would discover only to ponder about their purpose.

The second (near) certainty is that this will not be the only section of HS2 line to be completed. Leaving HS2 as what I have dubbed the Acton – Aston shuttle is inconceivable. As Jim Steer, the director of Greengauge 21 which has been one of the main promoters of the line right from the beginning put it on my podcast, Calling All Stations, that as a national asset, such a line would be as useful as the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch railway, a remark which several respondents thought was unfair to that heritage line.

But Steer is right. A line which does not reach central London and does not connect easily with Birmingham New Street will be little used. Few people will schlep out to Old Oak Common, which is notoriously difficult to reach by road, to take a train to Birmingham when there will still be services to New Street from Euston and, indeed, to Snow Hill from Marylebone.

So what is to be done? There are no easy answers. Euston is a must but there is no chance that the funding, as the government has suggested, could come from the private sector. There is zero chance that any development – even skyscrapers that reach to the heavens – would fund the construction of a station last estimated at £4bn and the line through from Old Oak Common, toss in another £3bn or so. As someone who cycles through the area, it is an utter disgrace that a perfectly good council estate, a hotel, a pub and various other buildings were torn down when there was no clear plan as to what should be built there. It is, ironically, in the constituency of our likely prime minister, so it is an issue on which Keir Starmer is likely to pay some attention. Steer argues for the link to be built as a priority but, while it is difficult to disagree with him in terms of the usefulness of the railway, it is hard to see a newly appointed transport minister agreeing to billions of extra expenditure at a time of hugely competing demands.

The case for reinstating the section north of Handsacre Junction, also advocated by Steer, is even stronger. Under current arrangements, it seems that the HS2 trains, with no tilting capacity, will be slower than the existing stock if they simply divert to the existing West Coast Main Line. Moreover, it was this part of the line that was most needed for extra capacity and without it there will have been little benefit for the whole scheme.

Steer was however less enthusiastic about the various proposals for reinstating sections of HS2 to Manchester and north of Crewe. The local mayors, Andy Burnham and Andy Street, despite representing different political parties, are however keen that these connections should be built arguing that they offer the key improvements to connectivity needed by the North. One can understand their position, but they are being unrealistic if they think the private sector can come to the rescue of this scheme.

This sets a very difficult set of questions for the incoming administration. One thing is clear though. These decisions cannot be ducked as that will simply lead to more expense, more dither and more paralysis. Calling All Stations is available on all main podcast platforms.

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