Outside the marginals

A commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010, 2015 & 2017 elections

HS2: This service is running late or cancelled

That well know “supporter” of public investment the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) has weighed in against HS2 (The High Speed Rail proposal to drag Birmingham kicking and screaming into the South East) arguing that it is going to cost far too much.

“The evidence is now overwhelming that this will be unbelievably costly to the taxpayer while delivering incredibly poor value for money,” he said.

“It’s shameful that at a time of such financial difficulty for many families, the government is caving in to lobbying from businesses, local councils and self-interested politicians more concerned with winning votes than governing in the national interest.”

The institute said the policy may have been partly followed to win votes in “response to poor electoral performance in the north of England in recent elections”.

And it said money would be better spent on more “commercially viable” road, rail and transport projects “not requiring support from the taxpayer”
BBC Website 18 August 2013: HS2 ‘could cost taxpayer £80bn’

I also think it will be costly (very) but there are more important reasons for not proceeding with the current proposals.

The Department of Transport says in response:

“Without HS2 the key rail routes connecting London, the Midlands and the North will be overwhelmed.

“It will provide the capacity needed in a way that will generate hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions of pounds worth of economic benefits.


This whole proposal is predicated on the need to get to London. Despite what the DoT says it will not connect “the North” (Leeds and Manchester are a little over half way up England, let alone the UK.) What it will do is drain activity out of the Midlands into an already overheated South East.

Look at the route map. It’s like a drainage plan not a national infrastructure plan.

HS2 DOT map on BBC Website

The drain from Birmingham Leeds and Manchester to London

It is crazy to think that this is being proposed (as the IEA suggests) to win votes in “response to poor electoral performance in the north of England in recent elections”. In the North of England (never mind Scotland) we are sick to death of “National Infrastructure” spending being concentrated in the South East:

  • Airport Expansion (Gatwick 2, Stanstead, Heathrow 4/5, etc.)
  • Channel Tunnel (OK it has to be in the South East! But it is only connected to London)
  • Widening motorways to 6 lanes (like the M25, whilst the A1 North of Newcastle is mainly single carriageway)
  • Crossrail, Jubilee Line Extension, Battersea Link
  • The Olympics

And now HS2 – High Speed commuting into London so that the Midlands no longer needs a sustainable economy. (Even Phase 2 is geographically skewed)

An alternative?

HS2 North Alternative

Alternative to HS2

Avoid the Southern Nimbys, build a 68 Mile High Speed Line from Leeds to Liverpool via Manchester (red line above). Instead of trying to drain parts of the country into the South East, such a line would try to build synergies in a multi-city region. There are two main issues:

  1. A tunnel under the Pennines will be a major cost (unless of course you manage to find a surface route and the High Speed trains have the power and adhesion to go “over ‘top” – much like the French TGVs in many cases tend to do).
  2. Distances between stations mean that to make use of the high-speed capabilities you need trains with rapid acceleration.  The Javelins that provide commuter services on the 67 mile long HS1 may be just the type. (6,19, & 42 miles between stations.  Stratford at about 6 miles from St Pancras is probably a special case due to the Olympic Park and Redevelopment)

To make a 68 mile link work, it is necessary to limit the number of stations (so no luck for Huddersfield and Dewsbury).  To allow trains to slow for an intermediate station and then accelerate back up to high-speed either reduces overall capacity or requires high-speed facing points and very long deceleration and acceleration loops.  The only exception might be at Warrington if it is decided that it is worthwhile providing an interchange with the West Coast main Line (WCML) to London or Glasgow.

The concept therefore relies on hubs (at Leeds and Manchester).  For these to work it is necessary to have very rapid and seamless links into these hubs.  These links may take many forms:

  • Dedicated bus lanes or trams for very local traffic.
  • High Speed Shuttle links (blue lines) from the adjacent airports (both less than 10 miles from their city centres) directly into the high-speed rail stations
  • Improved commuter trains into the hubs from the likes of Dewsbury or Wakefield (Leeds), and Rochdale, Stockport or Bolton (Manchester).

The links to the airports could be innovative transport forms such as mag-lev with a view to connecting between a city centre High Speed Rail Station and an Airport Terminal in 5 to 10 minutes with a frequency of every 5 minutes. (Compare this to transit times within Heathrow Airport) This would help these airports to properly serve their regions – possibly taking load off the Southern Airports?

By pulling these three cities closer together you might generate a more sustainable centre of economic gravity that may just offer an alternative to London. Look at how many other countries have multiple centres of economic gravity – Germany probably being the best example (Berlin, Frankfurt, Hanover, Düsseldorf, Munich, Stuttgart etc.). In England we have Westminster, City of London and Docklands.

Compared to the current proposal for HS2 (Phase 1: London to Birmingham, and Phase 2: Birmingham to Leeds/Manchester), this main spine at 68 miles is short – about the same length as HS1.

Build this and build it quickly.  Get economic growth on the M62 corridor and then think about extensions. The “obvious” ones are to:

  • York (21 miles) – not for York itself but to link to the already fast East Coast Main Line (ECML) and hence to Teesside and Tyne & Wear.
  • Sheffield (29 miles) possibly using part of the route proposed for HS2 phase 2, and hence link to the East Midlands.
  • Possibly to Hull (50 miles).  The key question is whether the economic weight of Hull is sufficient to justify this length of line.  It may be that the existing line (via Garforth, Selby, and Hessle) can be upgraded provided alternative arrangements can be made for the slower freight and local passenger traffic that would be displaced.

If the model looks feasible it might then be duplicated elsewhere:

  • A dual hub system connecting Edinburgh and Glasgow, with shuttle links to Edinburgh Airport.
  • A dual hub system connecting Newcastle and Middlesbrough with Shuttle links to Newcastle Airport, Washington & Sunderland and to Stockton, Teesside Airport and possibly Darlington. The ECML would then be re-routed via Middlesbrough to use this line.
  • A multi hub system linking the East and West Midlands.  Deciding on the hubs here is more problematic.  Indeed it may be better to consider East and West Midlands as two separate systems.

In respect of the Midlands network(s), the benefits of high speed trains are lost if the stations are too close together which could be an issue in the North of the East Midlands and in the North of the West Midlands.

So what to do about Derby and Nottingham (12 miles apart)? Toton – as proposed by HS2 seems to be neither fish fowl nor good red herring.

  • It is not city centre, so you would need rapid shuttles into the centres of Nottingham and Derby. Would Londoners travelling North see “Toton” as equivalent to Derby or Nottingham?
  • Toton could be a Park and Ride for East Midlanders wanting to travel out of their sub-region; but there is already a Park and Ride a little further South (East Midlands Parkway).
  • HS2 is planned to run under East Midlands Airport (Castle Donington) – without a Station!

It would seem logical to put a hub at East Midlands Airport with Shuttles to Derby (8 miles) and Nottingham (10 miles). Alternatively a hub at Derby (central) with Shuttles to Nottingham and East Midlands Airport gives a city centre hub. A hub at Derby makes more sense than Nottingham, if a later connection is planned between Sheffield and Birmingham. Would a link to a central Leicester hub then make Nottingham more attractive?

The West Midlands is also problematic.  On one hand a hub at Birmingham International (for the Airport and the NEC) with rapid shuttles to Coventry and Birmingham city centres makes sense. Another hub at Wolverhampton would then look sensible.  Alternatively if only city centre hubs are acceptable, you could end up with hubs at Coventry, Birmingham and Wolverhampton (with rapid shuttles to Birmingham International from both Birmingham and Coventry?)

I have discussed the Midlands at a bit more length because they illustrate the two major differences between this approach and the HS2 proposals:

  1. These systems are essentially high-speed commuting systems to help create larger economic zones that might compete with London. The HS2 proposals envisage sucking people on business day trips down to London – travel to and from the capital is seen as key. Opponents of HS2 have challenged the need for this sort of long distance travel citing the availability of video-conferencing and the environmental (and economic) desire to reduce travel distances. In reality each of the above proposed systems is not much longer than Cross Rail – but at higher speed because the routes are not as built up as Central London and do not require so many intermediate stations. High Speed is vital to gain the multi-city synergies. At the moment Liverpool is 68 miles from Leeds and travel by rail takes between 1 hr 47 minutes and 2 hours. How would the region seem if it took only 38 minutes (the time it takes to do 67 miles from St Pancras to Ashford International)?
  2. To enable high-speed you should not have too many intermediate stations, yet sometimes you have desired destinations within a few miles of each other. Hence the hub concept. But for this to work you need rapid and easy connections into the hubs. The sort of shuttles discussed for the Leeds/Bradford and Manchester airport links should provide a city centre to terminal transfer that is as easy as (or easier than) transferring between terminals at some larger airports. You should be able to step off a high-speed train and cross the platform directly onto a shuttle. Will they however be perceived as distributing traffic around a single destination (e.g. Manchester City Centre & Airport) or will it seem to be a bit like Ryanair – sort of taking you there but leaving you short? If we were to consider someone travelling from say Bradford to Manchester Airport would they see it as three journeys or would the links be sufficiently slick and integrated that the shuttles at either end would be seen as nearly equivalent to moving around a large terminal?

If we can develop powerful multi-city regions and London gets concerned it can privately finance a link between North and South so that they can get to us!

Related Posts

HS2: Labour surprise

HS2 Northern Section – TBA

HS2 – throwing away the benefits?

HS2: Fiscal Irresponsibility? Political Avoidance


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4 thoughts on “HS2: This service is running late or cancelled

  1. Peter Lanky on said:

    I followed your link here from BBC Have Your Say. A lot of interesting stuff in this article. As a person who would like to use the railways far more than I am able to, the idea of a high speed link from Liverpool to Leeds seems a good proposal, especially if it then went on to York and Newcastle.

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