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How HS2 changed from the Birmingham Express to the Saviour of the North, and lost a Channel Tunnel link along the way

How HS2 changed from the Birmingham Express to the Saviour of the North, and lost a Channel Tunnel link along the way

🕔19.Mar 2014

Time tends to drag somewhat when the UK discusses transport projects, since this is a country with a reputation for taking ages to deliver even relatively minor infrastructure schemes.

But this has not been the case with HS2. In the space of three years the debate around Britain’s second high speed rail line has changed almost as quickly as one of the trains that will cut dramatically journey times between the north, the Midlands and London.

What started out as a super-fast connection between Euston and Birmingham that might or might not divert to Heathrow picked up pace when a Y-shaped extension from Birmingham to the North-west and North-east was added as a second phase.

That in itself was a remarkable statement of confidence in a period when it appeared that the country’s economic recovery was stuttering and might collapse entirely.

Back in 2012 the Government was still describing HS2 in simplistic terms of bullet trains cutting journey times to the capital. But that’s all changed now with recognition that HS2 is as much about creating additional capacity on the existing classic rail lines, creating jobs, and rebalancing the economy by helping to regenerate the Midlands and the North as it is about cutting journey times.

The appointment of Sir David Higgins as HS2 chairman demonstrated a change of pace by the Department for Transport, which had rightly been criticised for allowing the publication of what amounted to a dossier of distinctly dodgy financial calculations and cost-benefits that would apparently flow from high speed rail.

The Higgins Report – HS2 Plus – was described in advance as an exercise in cutting the cost of high speed rail where possible. It turned out to be nothing of the sort. What Higgins has actually done is to put the case not just for HS2, but for getting on with the new railway at a faster pace.

His report underlines the appalling imbalance between London and the South-east and the Midlands and North. Just six out of 66 FTSE 100 companies are based north of Birmingham. London and the South-east swallowed up 45 per cent of public expenditure on transport in 2010-11, compared with 13 per cent for the Midlands.

Higgins’ report has been accepted by the political coalition backing HS2. Labour appears now to be on board, with Shadow Transport Secretary Mary Creagh warmly welcoming Sir David’s new focus on benefits for the North.

Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls is still determined not to write a blank cheque for HS2, but Labour’s commitment to high speed rail does not appear to be in doubt now that the project has been rebranded as something of importance to the North as well as the Midlands.

The Liberal Democrats seem happy to give their backing to HS2, and even the Tory revolt from Buckinghamshire and Warwickshire has lost its fizz. There is a growing acceptance that high speed rail linking London to the Midlands and the North really is going to happen.

The main recommendations from the Higgins Report introduce yet another twist to the HS2 story. Sir David makes a strong argument for building the Birmingham to Crewe extension by 2027, six years earlier than planned. He also proposes ditching a £700 million plan to join up HS2 with HS1 by running track along a series of bridges in Camden.

Higgins’ suggestion that the Camden link is not value for money and should be dropped has been accepted by the Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, which means that as things stand there will be no ‘straight through’ high speed services from Birmingham and the North to the Channel Tunnel and Europe. It will be necessary for passengers to get off HS2 trains at Euston and make the short, but annoying, journey to St Pancras for services to the continent.

So what started out as the Birmingham Express, has seamlessly become the Saviour of the North, and lost a direct link to HS1 along the way.

Sir David points out that the journey from HS2 at Euston to HS1 at St Pancras will only involve one stop on the tube, but the prospect of not joining up our high speed rail network has already invited ridicule and will damage the effectiveness of the new service – not to mention threatening the way modal shift from air to rail for trips to European capitals that HS2 was supposed to provide.

To be fair to Sir David and Mr McLoughlin, both talk about finding an alternative way to link the two high speed rail lines “once the initial stages of HS2 are complete”. What that alternative might be is far from certain. What is crystal clear, however, is that the passport control area proposed for the Birmingham Curzon HS2 station will have to be kept under wraps for the time being.

Mr McLoughlin admitted that community protests in Camden shaped his thinking: “Sir David’s report concludes that the link proposed in the High Speed Rail Bill has not secured a consensus. The link requires too many compromises in terms of impacts on freight, passengers and the community in Camden. I, therefore, intend to take the necessary steps to remove the link from the Bill and withdraw the safeguarding of this section of the route as soon as possible.

“I will also commission a study into ways to improve connections to the continent that could be implemented once the initial stages of HS2 are complete.”

The Higgins Report was broadly welcomed in Birmingham and the West Midlands, where HS2 is described as a “game changer” for the investment and jobs it is expected to create around the Birmingham Interchange station and the Birmingham Curzon station. The Interchange station in particular will make the UK Central regeneration zone along the M42 Corridor far more attractive to inward investors.

Jerry Blackett, chief executive of Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce, said: “HS2 has always been about increased rail capacity and the potential to use the station investment in particular as a catalyst for a far-reaching programme of physical and skills-led transformation.

“Sir David is right to highlight the cost advantages of building quickly. There are also huge commercial benefits to be had from connecting, for example, the great cities in the North as soon as possible so that we can reap the rewards of the new business that will be created.

“We will need to study closely the plans to drop the HS2-HS1 connection. The potential for businesses going to and from the Continent in one journey has been important to Midland businesses.

“There is interesting work going on to connect Cross Rail 2 via an underground station between St. Pancras/Euston. I imagine it will be solutions like these that might now apply to HS2/HS1 connectivity. The Chamber looks forward to discussing options with HS2.”

Campaign for Rail, a lobby group based in the West Midlands, believes McLoughlin was right to scrap the proposed Camden link, but wants to see something better put in its place to join up HS2 with HS1.

CfR said it believed direct trains from Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds through the Channel Tunnel to Continental Europe were vital to regional prosperity.  Paris would be just over three hours from Birmingham by direct train and would be “more attractive than flying”.

A spokesman said: “HS2 should not just be about services from the north to London, it should connect the backbone of UK Plc into Europe.   Without a new link from HS2 to HS1, passengers would face the disincentive of getting from Euston to St. Pancras stations and rail would lose its competitiveness.”

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