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Royal Assent: a huge step forward

Jim Steer resize 635823306250970852Jim Steer, director of Greengauge 21, reflects on the first phase of HS2 receiving Royal Assent and what challenges lie ahead

The powers to build the first phase of HS2 – linking Euston with Birmingham Curzon Street and with the West Coast Main Line (WCML) at Handsacre – achieved Royal Assent on 23 February. As the accompanying government announcement said, we can expect construction to start this spring.

The background chatter will be how slowly the wheels turn towards implementation, but by the standards of our European or North American peer group, this is a good rate of progress. High-speed rail in Britain had no mainstream political support until 2008. Royal Assent nine years on is a case of leaps and bounds.

Those who have been involved in the day-by-day progression of the Parliamentary Bill over more than three years have no doubt allowed themselves a few moments to celebrate. For all of those concerned – including those representing stakeholder interests such as Sarah Hayward, leader of Camden Council, who recently announced she would be standing down, as well as those acting for HS2 Ltd – should be congratulated. This part attrition/part negotiation process is democratic planning in action. 

What challenges lie ahead?

Most important, of course, is on-time and on-budget delivery of the phase 1 project. There are perhaps two areas of significant risk. As Transport for West Midlands head Laura Shoaf points out, one is in the West Midlands, where there will be some – on its own manageable – disruption to the rail network; the problem being that in the same years and vicinity, major work is planned on the national motorway network too.

But the greater concern surrounds Euston. Here the interfaces between the major rail sector players, HS2 Ltd, TfL, Network Rail and DfT can all too easily take on the appearance of fault lines. It makes no sense to those living and working in the area that HS2 is a two-phase concept that could mean 16 years of construction work from now through to 2033 (phase 2 completion date). That’s before adding in any related upgrade and rebuild of the ‘classic line’ part of the station, and Crossrail 2 on as yet unknown timelines.

The answer to this problem – identified back in 2010 by Greengauge 21 and developed by Network Rail subsequently – is to take commuter services out of Euston by tying them into Crossrail, which is calling out for a second route to complement the Great Western limb west of Old Oak. Then a more efficient and single phase rebuild of Euston becomes entirely possible. The phase 1 powers could be used and adapted to this end.

If nothing else, however, some of HS2 Ltd’s wider access and regeneration funding must surely be allocated to creating a proper surface link between Euston and St Pancras, suitable for longer distance travellers as well as commuters.

We can now look ahead to phase 2 which itself has two stages. Phase 2a extends the new line to Crewe (to be reached in 2027, only one year after phase 1 opens) and its Parliamentary Bill will be deposited in autumn this year. Phase 2b then extends the western route onwards to a connection with the WCML at Golborne and a new route into an HS2 station at Manchester Piccadilly.

Phase 2b eastern route is more substantial (roundly 200km) and branches off near Water Orton to its destinations of Leeds (where an integrated station is now planned) and Church Fenton to access York and – via the East Coast Main Line – the north east.

Since HS2’s remit was set, large-region transport and economic regeneration bodies have emerged. Transport for the North (TfN) is likely to be the first to gain statutory powers – and a budget to oversee. For TfN, a key aim is to transform the links between the main northern cities. The busiest city-city connection is Sheffield-Leeds and phase 2b is shaping up to enable the ambition of a 30-minute centre-to-centre journey time to be met – hopefully with a four trains/hour service over this part of the HS2 route.

This may seem a modest achievement compared with the transformational journey time savings HS2 brings on routes from northern cities to London and Birmingham. But it represents a valuable broadening of the benefits that HS2 provides, as sought for by its chairman, Sir David Higgins, three years ago. 

Next in line as a statutory sub-national transport body is Midlands Connect, embracing the east and west Midlands. HS2 phase 2b ought to be able to provide a transformation in Birmingham-Nottingham connectivity, but current plans fall short. Midlands Connect is seeking a large-scale time reduction on today’s tedious rail journey: 1h14mins between the largest cities of the west and east Midlands respectively.

Using the planned HS2 station at Toton doesn’t cut the mustard, what with a 30+ minute tram connection to Nottingham city centre or a transfer to some sort of heavy rail connecting shuttle service. The travel market would remain on the parallel M42/A42. But there is the possibility of a southern connection to the Midland Main Line where the HS2 route crosses it (at East Midlands Parkway). This could offer fast Birmingham-Nottingham (and Birmingham-Derby) rail connections. Additional cost would be a factor, but then the cost of a major new station at Toton could perhaps be saved.

There is a choice in train service philosophy emerging here with phase 2b. Once a view is taken that this new route, which has spare capacity, should meet within region as well as to/from London connectivity aims, the case for direct city centre (rather than parkway) access becomes clear.

Now is the time to address these questions because later this year phase 2b will start a two-year environmental assessment process.

In conclusion: 2017 marks a huge step forward for HS2. Phase 1 powers signal the start of the delivery phase. Phase 2a will start its passage through Parliament and outstanding decisions on phase 2b could help broaden its value and support across the regions.


Rugster   29/04/2017 at 07:49

2b is a complete waster of time for Sheffield unless they tunnel into Midland. The whole scheme shows the institutionalised 'racism' of the southern elites against northerners. They spend money like drunken sailors down south, tunnelling got fun, then the first time in years sheffield gets any sniff of a major infrastructure project, the main emphasis is spending as little as possible and we end up with a total dogs dinner. Absolutely disgusted.

Graham Nalty   02/05/2017 at 18:22

Birmingham to Derby will always be faster via the current line than HS2, but Birmingham to Nottingham via HS2 is most necessary to oil the wheels of the Midlands Engine. Well done Jim Steer in suggesting that the station proposed for Toton is not necessary. 'Current plans fall short' is perhaps a bit of understatement." And well said Rugster about Sheffield. Why is it that HS2 Ltd. is doing its utmost to avoid making Sheffield a major interchange on HS2. The benefits to the North would be enormous.

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