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Summer Special: HS2 keeps on the rails

Summer Special: HS2 keeps on the rails

🕔25.Aug 2016

Our final special summer report from the Chamberlain Files team looks at the planned HS2 high speed railway from London to Birmingham.

The train now leaving Birmingham Curzon platform one is the very fast 7am service to London Euston calling at Birmingham International, Old Oak Common for Heathrow Airport, and arriving at London Euston at 7.49am.

This is the type of announcement that should be common place from 2026 when HS2 high speed trains begin running from a brand new station at Curzon Street, cutting journey times between Birmingham and London to not much more than three quarters of an hour.

Assuming, of course, that the Government does not get cold feet and curtail, scale back or even scrap HS2 to save between £55 billion and £80 billion, depending on whose figures you believe.

Even if HS2 was shelved, something would have to be done to provide additional capacity on the overcrowded West Coast Main Line which runs from Euston to Birmingham and on to Glasgow. Upgrading existing lines between Birmingham and Euston would cost substantially more than building a new high speed line, according to the Government.

The arrival of Theresa May as prime minister in July gave a brief moment of fresh hope to opponents of HS2, particularly Tory MPs representing constituencies in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire through which the railway will run. But Mrs May seems likely to disappoint the opposition to high speed rail having said in the past that she regards HS2 as a vitally important tool to boost UK economic growth and bring wealth and jobs to the Midlands and the north. Her article in the Birmingham Mail last week will have dashed the hopes of anti HS2 campaigners.

Her recent remarks about developing an industrial policy for all cities and towns in the country and a wish to rebalance the economy away from over-heated London and the south-east would suggest that Mrs May and her Transport Secretary Chris Grayling see HS2 as much as an economic tool capable of stimulating regeneration as a very fast train service.

She will be supported by former Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin, now the Tory party chairman, who is an enthusiastic supporter of HS2 and has rejected fears the railway could fall victim to a post-Brexit slump in the economy.

He said at a cost of £3 billion a year the high speed rail project would swallow up less than one per cent of the Government’s total £700 billion annual capital spending programme.

I don’t know why some people think it’s not going to happen. We’re making good progress with London to Birmingham. I believe HS2 will be completed as stated.

Three billion pounds a year is not a huge proportion of Government annual expenditure and it’s very important for the future of the country. Fortunately the prime minister and Chancellor ‘get’ the importance of infrastructure in creating jobs and opportunities.

That, then, would appear to be that, although it would be foolish to underestimate the opposition of many MPs to HS2 along with a near certainty that the huge public infrastructure project will run way over budget despite claims by the Department of Transport that the entire railway from London to Birmingham and on to Leeds and Manchester can be built for £55 million.

The National Audit Office has been a persistent critic of HS2, coming close on occasion to accusing the Government of making up financial estimates.

Earlier in the year the NAO said the Department for Transport had failed to prove that HS2 would boost regional economies and create thousands of jobs.

The Commons Public Accounts Committee has been similarly sceptical about the ability of HS2 Ltd to bring the new railway home on time and on budget, with chair Meg Hillier warning that the project is under severe strain.

Public perception of a vastly expensive scheme has not been helped by the disclosure that HS2 Ltd is spending £2.8 million a year on renting its national headquarters at Snow Hill, Birmingham.

There is without doubt a lot riding on HS2 as far as the future economic fortunes of Greater Birmingham and the West Midlands are concerned. If every politician who has said HS2 will be a ‘game changer’ was required to pay £10, there would be enough in the kitty to buy a couple of first class season tickets for the first year of high speed rail services between Birmingham and London.

The strategic economic plans drawn up by the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP and by the West Midlands Combined Authority rely heavily on HS2 to create regeneration and jobs around Curzon Street in Birmingham city centre and at Birmingham International and the UK Central growth zone between Birmingham Airport, the NEC and the M42.

There are other knock-on benefits including funding from the West Midlands devolution deal to improve public transport links, by metro tram and buses, to make sure prospective employees from across the region can travel easily and quickly to the HS2 stations.

The WMCA sets out the opportunities afforded by HS2 in a mission statement:

We need a fully integrated rail and rapid transit network that connects our main centres with quick and frequent services, and that increases the number of people who can readily access HS2 stations and main centres.

By delivering this, we will reduce transport’s impact on our environment, improving air quality, reducing carbon emissions and improving road safety. The resulting network will enable the efficient movement of goods to help businesses to connect to supply chains, key markets and strategic gateways.

Steve Hollis, deputy chair strategy of the GBSLEP and likely successor to Andy Street, addresses HS2 in his comments on the first page of the draft 2016-2030 Strategic Economic Plan (SEP):

HS2 presents a once-in-a-generation chance to deliver growth on an unprecedented scale and sets Greater Birmingham apart as genuinely unique. Nowhere else in Europe can boast of two brand new high speed rail station sites within touching distance of a major airport, at the heart of the strategic road and rail networks and with a series of nationally significant economic assets already in place. To say this is a game changer is an understatement.

Mr Hollis talks about “the major transformational opportunity” being created by HS2 which will, within the timeframe of the SEP, bring Birmingham city centre within 49 minutes of central London and make Birmingham Airport – the UK’s seventh busiest – the UK’s first and only high-speed rail connected airport.

GBSLEP’s draft SEP makes it clear just how much is riding on high speed rail:

The two HS2 stations will drive new areas for regeneration, housing and business growth. The Birmingham Curzon Investment Plan and growth plans for UK Central in Solihull have set out the opportunity to create more than 52,000 jobs and £1.25 billion in GVA per annum.

With an associated package of local transport investments, HS2 provides the opportunity to dramatically transform East Birmingham and North Solihull, two areas of long-standing deprivation.

Birmingham Airport has huge potential and the ability to open up access to key international markets for thousands of the region’s businesses, and will be significantly bolstered by HS2 bringing 35 million people within two hours’ travel.

HS2 will also further enhance Greater Birmingham’s attractiveness as an investment location.

There is a warning though that it won’t be good enough simply to sit back and wait for the trains to arrive:

Supply chains in key industries face varied barriers to growth that, unchecked, will prevent them from taking full advantage.

In order to create world-class places, both Birmingham Curzon and the UK Central Hub require huge investment in infrastructure to enable growth to come forward. Furthermore, significant connectivity enhancements are required to ensure that people and businesses can access the station sites and associated development zones and fully participate in the economic opportunities created.

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