HS2: Cutting through Cumbria

Source: RTM Feb/March 2019

Cumbria Chamber of Commerce is arguing for HS2 services from London to call at Carlisle, Oxenholme and Penrith. The chamber’s policy lead, Julian Whittle, explains why.

It came as a huge shock to businesses in Cumbria to learn that HS2 trains from London are set to pass through the county without stopping. If the plans come to fruition, the dedicated high-speed line will extend as far as Golborne Junction, near Wigan, from where trains will continue over existing tracks to Glasgow or Edinburgh.

But HS2 is saying that these services will operate non-stop north of Preston, forcing passengers from Cumbria to change trains.

Cumbria Chamber of Commerce is the largest representative business organisation in the county. Our initial reaction was that HS2’s proposal would damage our economy – that was confirmed when we consulted in-depth on transport issues early in 2018 to shape our response to Transport for the North’s draft strategic plan.

Of the 141 businesses to complete our survey, 65% thought their prospects would be harmed if HS2’s London trains failed to stop. Many didn’t mince their words. Comments included: “insane,” “crazy,” “an absolute disgrace,” and “an absolute disaster.”

For the last year, we have been lobbying HS2 to change its mind. We have the backing of Cumbrian MPs, local authorities, and Cumbria Tourism; while in December I met the minister for HS2, Nusrat Ghani, to explain our position. She asked us to prepare a business case, which we submitted as our response to HS2’s consultation on its Phase 2b Environmental Statement.

Our principal argument is that HS2’s proposal puts at risk the astonishing growth in passenger numbers seen on the West Coast Main Line since the introduction of Virgin’s Pendolino trains in 2004-5. Passenger numbers at Penrith and Oxenholme have soared by 134% and 124% respectively. The existing stopping pattern for London-Glasgow services clearly works. So why meddle with it? At present, all trains call at Carlisle while more than half serve Oxenholme and Penrith.

It is true that, even with a change at Preston, HS2 will reduce journey times to London, but many passengers put a higher value on the convenience of a through service. Changing brings the potential for a missed connection, and deters tourists with luggage and business travellers who prefer to work without interruption.

Omitting Cumbrian stations sends out absolutely the wrong message to potential inward investors by portraying the county as a backwater – it’s anything but. Our 498,000 permanent residents are swelled by 47 million annual visitors (Cumbria has two National Parks and two World Heritage Sites), and the coastal strip rarely seen by visitors is home to high-tech manufacturing and energy businesses such as Sellafield, BAE Systems, and GSK.

HS2’s plans would hinder the Lake District National Park’s strategy to reduce the proportion of visitors arriving by car. It would also undermine the government’s proposals for a Borderlands Growth Deal and for a garden village, with up to 10,000 new homes, on the outskirts of Carlisle.

There are signs that HS2 is showing flexibility. It had planned to split trains into Glasgow and Edinburgh portions at Carstairs in Scotland. It now says it may do this at Carlisle, allowing passengers to board and alight.

We think HS2 should go further. There is a compelling case for its services to observe the existing stopping pattern when they join the ‘classic’ network north of Golborne Junction. After all, the main argument for HS2 is that it increases capacity by relieving pressure on the West Coast Main Line.

Achieving shorter London-Glasgow/Edinburgh journey times is a bonus. Shaving a few more minutes off shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all.


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