Is HS2 on the right track?

It’s increasingly beginning to look like HS2 is a good cause in the wrong hands. The call by leading transport academics for a review of this costly £51bn project is one that should be heeded, and the sooner the better.

As reported elsewhere, it seems HS2 is taking a long and hard road in meeting its four key objectives.  There are other options which could and should have been looked at in the early planning stages but which do not appear to have been considered.

The case for capacity – its main selling point – has not yet been proven and is based on the assumption that passenger growth will continue at recent levels. As the report indicates, long distance trains are far from full on the ECML, and even less so on the WCML. Longer trains and platforms, smarter signalling and better pricing offer much cheaper and quicker ways of enhancing capacity. So it will be some while before these routes grind to a halt.

And if capacity (not speed) is HS2’s main justification then why are additional costs being needlessly incurred by engineering the line to a 400km/h (250mph specification)?

The case for connectivity is even less convincing; in fact, some places will be worse off if HS2 is built as currently configured. ‘Connectivity’ in Birmingham will mean having to change stations;  Leeds and Manchester will be served by two dead end terminals; while the Toton and Meadowhall interchanges will be peripheral to the places they are supposed to connect.

HS2’s London-centric origins are clearly evident by the failure to include any east-west links when the Manchester – Leeds ‘Y’ plan was drafted. What kind of message does that send out? It’s as if journeys that don’t begin or end in London don’t count.

If HS2 is not going to connect with HS1, and if the line is not going to carry freight then why build it bigger than it needs to be? Why build a larger loading gauge when it will not be used? Apart from saving the additional construction expense, a smaller one would also remove the need to build two different types of high-speed train (i.e. one confined to running on HS2 and the other able to run on the rest of the network).

The HS2 specific sets will have no residual value as their greater size means they cannot be cascaded to other parts of the network. Their working lives may be very short (by railway standards).

So a review of HS2 would be a good thing. However, the main stumbling block to that would be the politicians and the planners responsible for the current impasse. While not exactly admitting to infallibility, these gentlemen would not take too kindly to admitting that they have got things wrong and having to go back to square one.

But it’s essential to get things right before they go any further. Even if that sets the project back a bit.


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