HS2 – Off We Go – Better Late than Never?

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Well, now it’s official, HS2 gets the go ahead by the Government – well, as far as Birmingham at least, since that’s the only bit that has been sanctioned by Act of Parliament.  The arguments will continue to rage about its benefits and certainly its costs, but those who are using the environment to plead against the project have already lost, and hedgerows and woodlands, as well as houses will disappear.

The main argument in favour of the London to Birmingham link now being advanced is that of increased rail capacity, which it must be assumed is that removing passengers travelling on the existing London to Birmingham link will move to HS2.  That it is said will free up the paths on the WCML for freight, and other, regional and semi-fast connections.  The questions that this now raises is how will that freed up capacity be allocated, how will it be regulated – unless of course the rail network is nationalised, there will be further negotiations around passenger train franchising.

 

Of course it will not ‘rebalance the economy’ as one commentator offered on the TV news today, but it could be seen as starting in the wrong place and going in the wrong direction, as another commentator implied.  It should, as is widely acknowledged now, have started as HS3, linking the northern towns and cities, between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, etc., and then driven south towards the midlands.  One politician on the TV commented that, as a midlands MP it would help him get to Westminster quicker, and would provide a jobs boost for commuters to London.

Then, there is the technology question, and interoperation and compatibility with existing high speed train services – unless these just stop at interchange stations, and passengers change platforms from one train to another.  Of course, the other infrastructure element that needs investment is the power supply.

Back in 2000, there was a great deal of concern about the supply of electricity from the national grid to key areas and sections of the WCML, but I imagine that this will not trouble HS2 for a while yet – nor when it runs alongside the existing routes?

This is a vital piece of work, not only from the UK’s railway industry, but it MUST be only the start of projects that “rebalance the economy“, and it is ESSENTIAL that HS3, or Northern Powerhouse Rail follows.   The Railway Industry Association CEO, Darren Caplan made the following comments:

“The Railway Industry Association and our members support the Government’s decision today to get HS2 done, a decision that could unlock a new ‘golden age of rail’.

“HS2 will not just boost the UK’s economy and connectivity, but will also enable other major rail infrastructure projects to be delivered too, such as Northern Powerhouse Rail, Midlands Rail Hub, East West Rail, Crossrail 2, and a range of other schemes.”

Overall, the announcement made today has also drawn positive comments from a range of sources.

Dr Jenifer Baxter, Chief Engineer at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers said:

“The Institution of Mechanical Engineers is delighted that the Government has retained confidence in the benefits of the HS2 project.  The resulting improvements to both north-south and east-west flows in the North of England will lead to economic growth, modal shift from road and air to rail for both passengers and freight. This will provide significant benefits for reduced greenhouse gas emissions and reduce pollutants that contribute to poor air quality.

The routes minimise the impact of construction on the operation of today’s railway with opportunities to investigate how the high-speed rail link can be delivered with minimal environmental impacts. For example, more refined modelling using information from High Speed 1 might indicate where some expensive tunnelling may be avoided.”

I would like to agree with Dr Baxter, especially with regard to modal shift for freight, but the trend so far in the rail capability does not support that idea – there is an increased demand yes, but connecting up existing facilities in the north has not happened.

In 2015, a £3million+ intermodal facility was opened at Teesport, and PD Ports saw its customers choosing to use intermodal platforms, with a “significant modal shift” continuing.

Perhaps the most telling comment made by this port operator is this:

“There is a significant demand from our customers to be able to move freight east to west through this Northern corridor allowing shorter distances to be covered by rail. Without a viable alternative route for rail freight with the necessary capacity and gauge, the growth we are experiencing will be limited and at risk of reducing due to transport restrictions.”

In addition then to the lack of investment in rail freight generally, there is a very considerable difference in any economic strategy to enable the oft-quoted “Northern Powerhouse” to actually fulfil its aspirations.  The approval for HS2 does not, improve that situation at all, and the extension of the initial HS2 project as far as Crewe, could likely create a bottleneck as freight and passenger services converge.

By 2017/18, the total goods lifted by rail in the UK was down to only 75 million tonnes annually, and according to ORR estimates, represented less than 5% of total freight moved.  The non-bulk services offered by British Rail under Speedlink, and other services have long since been replaced by 1,000s of “white vans” from DPD, UPS DHL, etc., etc. – many travelling hundreds of miles a day.  How can they be integrated and improve connectivity on the back of HS2?

The impact on freight and modal shift?

Babcock Rail Wagons 4For passengers HS2 might well assist in faster commuting to London from the West Midlands, but it has little or no prospect of improving rail transport in the North, and perhaps only marginal in the Midlands.  Couple that with the failure to build and investment in the northern rail infrastructure – indeed the cancellation of electrfication projects – it is difficult not to say that the project is starting from the wrong place!

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