HS2 – We’re Off – Officially

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This was the main transport story on the 4th September on numerous news outlets – well after the Covid-19 quarantine issues for travellers. What does it actually mean – work has been underway for some time in site clearances, groundworks in preparation to build a dedicated line for passengers from London to Birmingham.

This is what HS2 stated on its website at what was deemed the official launch day:

“HS2 Ltd has today (4 September 2020) announced the formal start of construction on the project, highlighting the large number of jobs the project will be recruiting for in the coming months and years.

So, this controversial project continues to progress, and the objections and protests continue, but will HS2 achieve its objective? Again, according to the company’s own website, this what they are seeking to achieve:

Yes, I know it is only Phase 1, and the remaining sections will take the high speed links to Manchester, Leeds, etc. But – that’s still a long way off, as indeed is the completion of the 140 miles from London, near Euston & Paddington, to Birmingham Curzon Street. Yesterday too, Solihull gave consent to the building of the Birmingham Interchange Station, with its ‘peoplemover’ link to the NEC. Wonder if that’ll be “Maglev Revisited”? (See: Worlds First Commercial Maglev System)

“HS2 is a state-of-the-art, high-speed line critical for the UK’s low carbon transport future. It will provide much-needed rail capacity across the country, and is integral to rail projects in the North and Midlands – helping rebalance the UK economy.”

See: https://www.hs2.org.uk/what-is-hs2/

That said, much has changed in the 10 years that this idea has been cooking, and some dramatic changes have ocurred in 2020, and will doubtless occur in the years to follow. But this statement that formal construction of HS2 has begun, only refers to Phase 1, and the world may well be a very different place again by 2033, when that phase is due to complete.

The official description states that the new dedicated line will rejoin the WCML north of Birmingham, and whilst the new Curzon Street station will serve the city and the West Midlands, will passengers for Glasgow use the route? HS2 do state services “…will travel onwards to places like Manchester, Glasgow, Liverpool, Preston and Wigan.”

The next phase – 2a – is to take the line from Birmingham to Crewe, and provide onward connections to the north – Manchester, Liverpool, Preston, Lancaster and Scotland. Interestingly, HS2 state that these locations will be part of the “high speed rail network” – they already are in that category, and HS2 is unlikely to make that journey any quicker.

So, does that mean that the ticket you buy to visit relatives in Carlisle will take you all the way, or will you need to change trains at Birmingham Curzon Street. If not, that’s good, and will simply require the paths for the new HS2 services to be slotted in to existing paths on the WCML to continue north to Crewe. They will also need to be mixed into the existing freight services for some time too, as Phase 2a has not yet received approval to proceed. The intended completion date has had a number of iterations for this key section, but is currently estimated to be somewhere between 2035 and 2040. So far, only the design processes and basic mapping and groundwork preliminary tasks, environmental assessment, etc. have been carried out north of Birmingham, and sadly, Covid-19 has paused the final approvals through Parliament this year.

For phase 2a we are still a long way off starting work, and completion is at least 20 years into the future – there is perhaps a lot of uncertainty about it happening fully. Then there is the question of train operations – and perhaps whether people will choose to travel on HS2, or just take the existing trains from London Euston to the north and Scotland.

Maybe we will get to see the trains run by Italian State Railways – maybe a bit like the ‘Frecciarossa’ trains they already run in Italy – FS did start bidding to run the HS2 trains back in 2017. As is well known, they now operate the UK’s West Coast Main Line high-speed services, so at least they have experience, but who else would be on the operator short list – France, Germany, or maybe China?

In late 2017, it was announced that “Five Train Builders” had made the short list to bid for the £2.75 billion contract, which were expected to receive the award in 2019. The builders in the frame at the time were:

  • Alstom;
  • Bombardier Transportation;
  • Hitachi Rail Europe;
  • Patentes Talgo S.L.U;
  • Siemens 

Then in 2019, CAF put in an appearance, and like Hitachi, they too have a new UK base, at Newport, and currently manufacture the latest multiple unit stock used on Northern, West Midlands, and Wales & Borders. So, they have offered a train based on their “Oaris” platform. And then we had six, but thrown back to five, as Alstom have now bought Bombardier.

Mind you, HS2’s plans to award a contract in 2020 were challenged – as indeed everything on the planet has – by the pandemic that began at the start of the year. Of course, all of this will affect the opening and start date of operations on HS2 Phase 1, and perhaps even more dramatic changes will take place in the coming months, and the other phases may not come to full fruition.

The rail industry is indeed the most environmentally friendly transport sector, but although travelling as a passenger at high speed in the UK may be nice – once again iut is too little, and too late. The national infrastructure should be focussed on the movement of goods and address the growing need for more regional, and localised freight handling facilities.

A case of back to the future for freight – it remains to be seen if people really do want to travel from Birmingham to London 40 minutes quicker in 2035. In fact, in January 2020, a survey (“the post-election future of HS2”) published in “The Engineer” resulted in 52% of those polled being in favour of cancelling the project altogether.

But on the day construction of the line was formally begun, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps was quick to justify the project, and deny that the Corona Virus Pandemic had made any difference to the perceived need, he said this on BBC Radio 4’s “Today Programme”:

“We’re not building this for what happens over the next couple of years or even the next 10 years.  We’re building this – as with the west coast and east coast main lines – for 150 years and still going strong.  So I think the idea that – unless we work out a way of teletransporting people – that we won’t want a system to get people around the country… is wrong.”

Time will tell – we only have to wait another 20 years to find out.

-oOo-

Links:

HS2

UK GOV/DfT HS2

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