The HS2 project survives. Despite ferocious attacks, the initial High Speed Rail (Preparation) Act 2013 was passed in November and the Hybrid Bill – where the real arguments are debated – is now going through the UK Parliament.
The key questions are about connectivity, how HS2 will link up the cities and towns of Britain, bringing them closer together. The confirmation that there will be no link to the Eurostar line is insignificant compared to the importance of linking up the towns, cities and regions of Britain.
The main issue with HS2 is that though these trains will slash times from London Euston to Birmingham Curzon Street and Manchester Piccadilly, passengers will be left on the platform at these destinations with few onward options. Until now, virtually no thought has been given to the final destinations where people want to go to, or how they’ll get there. Curzon Street Station, for example, is several hundred metres from the connecting trains at New Street Station, where a £500 million rebuild is taking place – yet, amazingly, there’s no plan for getting the customers from one to the other.
Linking the core and periphery
Belatedly, HS2’s planners have recognised that a key argument for the new railway is its potential to trigger urban regeneration – but that regeneration is likely to be limited to a small circle around the new stations. But the places most in need of regeneration are not the great core cities like Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. It’s the scores of industrial towns in the regions around them which have lost their old economic base and are struggling to find a new one.
Only in the past few months have civic leaders woken up to this fact. As a result, a split is developing between the core cities and other places such as Wakefield, Bradford, Burnley and Blackburn. There’s a risk that these secondary and tertiary towns and cities might even be worse connected to the rest of the country than they are now if left out of the HS2 project.
This problem can be solved through a three-pronged attack. First, it’s essential that tram and bus rapid transit systems are created to link the HS2 stations to surrounding areas. Manchester, which is completing a 60-mile tram network, provides the model.
Second, the local and cross country rail networks that link the wider regions need to be electrified and upgraded, and these networks need to be seamlessly connected to the HS2 hubs. This is not an easy job in Birmingham and Leeds because of the way the stations’ tracks are configured, but it can be done.
Third, and most critically, the HS2 trains need to provide onward connections to these networks, providing a direct service to London not just from the terminus at Birmingham, Leeds, or Manchester, but from Bolton, or Solihull, or Bradford – from the wider range of towns that fill the hinterland around great cities. The model here is France, where old industrial towns in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region enjoy direct trains to Paris.
Finally, equal attention needs to be given to links at the London end. The key interchange at Old Oak Common in West London, where it will meet Crossrail trains heading into the West End and the financial centre of the City, needs redesigning along Dutch lines with direct, cross-platform interchanges. And as Boris Johnson has stressed, Euston cannot accommodate the extra traffic without investment, notably in a second Crossrail line. All this will cost money, but without it, HS2 will simply not do the job it was intended for.
Remarkably, HS2’s new boss Sir David Higgins has fully bought into these arguments. Fifteen days into the job, he launched the project’s rethink in the northern capital of Manchester, pointing out the “poor connectivity” in the North, “not just to London, but also east to west between Liverpool and Manchester, Manchester and Leeds, Leeds and Hull. Those challenges have direct consequences, not just for the economy as a whole, but for people’s daily experience and aspirations.”“
Perhaps he’s thinking even further: as well as linking HS2 into local rail network, he sees the need for radically improved service on that west-east Trans-Pennine corridor in the North of England. Call it HS1.5. It could and should become an early priority if we want to see HS2 flourish.