The idea of accelerating the construction of HS2 to Manchester presented by the DfT may at first seem quite reasonable (LTT 06 Mar). However, I wonder if this is more of a soundbite than a proposal that has been carefully assessed in the light of current urgent transport needs.
A rail plan for the Midlands and North that will better take advantage of HS2 is certainly needed. HS2 has been conceived as a London-centric project because this produces the most favourable business case to be effective in persuading the Government to back high-speed rail. At the time this was a valid way to proceed. Unfortunately, as we have seen by the excessively strong public criticism of HS2, it is not effective in giving us the transport improvements that we need.
On speed, HS2 gives faster journeys on routes that are already very fast, whilst doing very little for the inter-city journeys that are currently rather slow, such as Liverpool to Nottingham, Stoke to Leicester or Sheffield to Bradford.
On capacity, HS2 succeeds in saving about six West Coast Main Line paths from London to the North West and should save only one path (London to Sheffield) on the Midland Main Line. According to the West Midlands’ 30-year rail plan, three fast West Coast Main Line paths will remain from London to Coventry and only one less train will serve Birmingham New Street.
London to Derby and Nottingham will always be faster via the Midland Main Line than using HS2 when real-life interchange times at Toton are included. And HS2 does little to relieve the train path congestion at Manchester Piccadilly as the services from Stoke willl just need shorter trains when London passengers use HS2.
The new plan for HS2 is a real opportunity to use HS2 to deliver a railway much better integrated to the needs of passengers. However, when I read: “The new plan will consider how to take account of the views of local leaders...”, I am not impressed.
Based on the past record of the DfT and HS2 Ltd, this will mean, “We will ask leaders of the cities along the route to offer their suggestions but will not accept them unless they agree with the Government’s preferred option.”
Leeds City Council made some very sensible proposals for the development of Leeds station for HS2, but HS2 Ltd still insisted on their terminal platforms for HS2 trains.
Sheffield offered a very ambitious solution but HS2 rejected it and diverted all HS2 trains (except those serving Sheffield) on an alignment through the Shimmer housing estate – a PR disaster.
Why is there no mention of listening to the views of rail passenger organisations who are very well informed of the limitations of the services they use?
The only way that rail services in the North and Midlands can be improved effectively is by challenging each city to develop its own long-term rail plan to meet the doubling of passenger traffic at their city centre stations over the next 30 years.
This will involve defining the rail corridors for HS2 and other intercity trains to be separate from local lines and to develop new cross-city lines.
Obviously these cannot be fully worked up in the time required for the HS2 plan, but basic work can be done on high-speed corridors.
What is important is that cities, with public support, should decide these plans and not the DfT who do not possess the detailed local knowledge. The routes outside the cities can best be connected by Transport for the North and Midlands Connect.
The re-examination of HS2 should look seriously at the option of serving Stoke on Trent rather than Crewe as the interchange for Northern services. Certainly this should be on the agenda for both TfN and Midlands Connect. I have very carefully studied the debate that occurred when Stoke City Council made their proposal and it is obvious to me that HS2 Ltd did not seriously consider the benefits of greater economic growth from the much larger city and did their best to discourage Stoke.
The political advantage to the Government of rewarding voters in Stoke who supported the Conservatives for the first time should not be under-estimated.
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