THE new chairman of HS2 Ltd David Higgins has firmly passed responsibility for the project's timescale back to politicians, saying the “key variable” is the length of time that legislation will take. “That is a matter for Government and Parliament," he said.
The eagerly-awaited report, ‘HS2 Plus’, looks at the project’s timing and costs and proposes extending the new line to a major transport hub at Crewe by 2027 so the North of England gains the benefits of the new railway six years earlier than originally planned. He also believes the whole ‘Y’ network could be completed up to three years sooner, by 2030.
At the London end he also proposes a “more ambitious” redevelopment of Euston station – but he finds the proposed HS2/HS1 link across Camden Town to be “sub optimal” and says it should be reconsidered.
However, after “an exhaustive review of the costs outlined in the first phase of the project” David Higgins proposes no change yet in the outline budget, but there is a possibility that a lower budget for phase one could be set at some point in the future when the legislative timetable becomes clearer and more certain.
So at present the budget for phase one – which currently stretches from London Euston to a reconnection with the West Coast Main Line near Lichfield and a spur line into Birmingham city centre – remains at £21.4 billion, including contingency, although transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin has said previously his 'target budget' is £17.6 billion.
David Higgins has dismissed opposition to HS2, making it clear that he is in no doubt that it should be built: “Without HS2, the people of this country will continue to face the failures of our transport system on a daily basis. With it, they will begin to see a strategic answer that can deliver real benefits within the foreseeable future. That is why, I believe, HS2 is a project which, despite the issues it raises, is in the national interest.”
He explains: “Every day, people in this country live with the consequences of our past failure to invest sufficiently in infrastructure capacity. For them, this is not a theoretical debate, but a living reality,” he says.
“In the past twenty years the number of journeys made on Britain’s rail network has doubled. In the past decade, that growth rate has averaged over five per cent per year, even through the economic downturn. Passenger and freight demand is forecast to increase by over 30 per cent over the next decade.”
“The reality is that key sections of the existing [West Coast] main line are full and, despite the efforts of some of the best brains in the business, the whole line is feeling the strain. Train operators cannot run all the services they want, and peak-time trains are increasingly full as a result.”
He adds: “At stations such as Milton Keynes and Northampton, it is increasingly likely that commuters at some stage will have to queue before they get on a train, with the resulting impact on end-to-end journey times and work/life balance. There is no sign of the rise in demand weakening, not least because the alternative is to join an already congested road network.”
The situation is not the fault of commuters “but the unbalanced nature of the UK economy.” The concentration of business, finance and commerce in London and the South East is becoming counter-productive, both for London and the rest of the country, says David Higgins.
He points out of Britain’s top 100 companies, 66 are in London and the South East, with only six located north of a line from Birmingham to Cambridge in England, with a further six in Scotland.
“That is why commercial office rents in London are amongst the highest in the world – a cost which is fed through to us, the consumers. It is also why the pressure on transport and the price of housing is continuing to rise. People feel they have to work, and therefore live, either in London itself or within commuting distance. It is a vicious circle that makes a difference to both people’s daily lives and the hidden costs in our economy.”
But, according to David Higgins, “it will never be possible to build all the transport and housing needed to meet demand in and around London.”
And he adds: “There seems to be a growing disparity with infrastructure spend in the rest of the country, which is widening – not closing – the economic divide.”
Despite, these comments the HS2 Action Alliance, the national group campaigning against HS2, issued a statement from former Labour Cabinet Minister, Lord Mandelson, who said: “HS2 is a cruel joke on the North.
“The faster connection between London and Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds – assuming these eventual links are ever built – will not regenerate the North but funnel people, business and spending into London and the South. It will be easier for people in London to take day trips north and not even stay overnight when they have done their business.”
Lord Mandelson added: “By ignoring this investment gap and blowing tens of billions instead on a high speed link serving London's needs, the government is delivering a blow to the North not building a bridge to its regions."
The Mandelson criticism came after the Government’s Business Secretary Vince Cable said there is now a "compelling case" to speed up links to Northern cities to help rebalance the British economy.
He told yesterday’s Observer newspaper: “Creating jobs outside London, and closing the gap between north and south, has been one of this government's top priorities. On every visit I make to the north of England, I've heard businesses and council leaders make a compelling case for getting to the north more quickly by accelerating parts of the HS2 build.
"That would ensure the economic benefits can be shared sooner by everyone around the country and deserves serious consideration by government."
Today, David Higgins in his ‘HS2 Plus’ report concludes: “Our infrastructure has not stood the test of time: it is a series of imperfect compromises which have not provided a strategic answer to the needs of the country. It has not maximised local synergies and it has reinforced the imbalance in the national economy, rather than acting as a catalyst for change. That is the problem: HS2 Plus can be the answer.”
“HS2 can change the status quo. It can address the underlying issues in a way that no other infrastructure project has done or can do. Whether it is congestion in the South; the disincentive that the journey time to London poses for companies contemplating establishing their businesses in the North; or the poor east-west connectivity that appears to inhibit trade, commerce and development, HS2 can help resolve those issues.”
He says the benefits of HS2 Phase One south of Birmingham are obvious. “Put simply, more track means more trains and therefore more space for commuters, long-distance travellers and freight.”
Whilst it is still too early to talk about precise timetables, David Higgins says Milton Keynes could get 11 trains to London per hour, compared to six now; Northampton six trains an hour instead of the current four; whilst places such as Rugby, Leighton Buzzard, Watford and Harrow & Wealdstone could all get more non-stop journeys. “The immediate benefits for commuters are obvious, but so too are those for long-distance travellers, who would not only get more frequent services and shorter journey times, but also enjoy a more reliable service on a modern, purpose-built railway.”
‘Need to go further’
Phase Two, as currently planned, would also bring huge benefits to the North, David Higgins says – but he adds: “We need to go further in relation to both phases if we are to deliver something that will stand the test of time and be a real catalyst for change in our country.”
He says the existing phase one plans, contained in the hybrid Bill now before Parliament, “will clearly be transformative.”
But he adds: “I have repeatedly been urged both to deliver the benefits the line will bring to the North sooner, and to start work there earlier. That is why I am proposing to extend the line to a new hub at Crewe by 2027, so that services through that interchange can be better and faster, sooner.”
The Crewe hub would bring together road and rail services for the region as a whole, allowing faster services sooner to Manchester, the rest of the North West and to Scotland, says David Higgins.
Challenging the politicians, David Higgins adds: “It would be for the Government and Parliament to decide how that might be achieved in terms of legislation, but I do not believe this needs to be a lengthy process.”
For the wider North of England, he comments: “I have been struck by the growing recognition by civic leaders of the potential transformational effect that HS2 could have on the North, not just because of improved access to and from London, but also to increase the linkages, trade and development across the region, east to west and north to south.”
But he says the transformational impact of HS2 on regional connectivity has been underestimated, as well as the potential for change if HS2 is seen as part of the wider transport network.
“Issues such as how to considerably improve the trans-Pennine line between Leeds and Manchester; or whether to re-open the Wortley Curve to improve services to Bradford and Wakefield; or the potential for electrification from Leeds to Hull; or the impact of the East Coast upgrade are not within HS2’s remit, but are hugely relevant to final decisions on the route.”
“That work, plus consideration of the responses to the Government’s consultation [on the HS2 routes north of Birmingham], needs to be considered before phase two is finalised. I would strongly recommend that the civic and business leaders in the region are brought into the discussion, which should be conducted on a regional, rather than an exclusively bilateral and local basis. The aim should be to develop HS2’s second phase alongside Network Rail’s Strategic Business Plan for the five-year control period starting in 2019.”
Legislation for phase two could be introduced as early as 2017, he believes, “with significant impacts on delivering benefits to the North sooner – up to three years earlier than currently planned.”
London Euston and HS2/HS1 link
As for the proposed HS2/HS1 Link, he says although it is the most cost-effective solution for linking the two networks, “it is an imperfect compromise because of the effect it would have on existing passenger and freight services and the local community.”
“The HS2 platforms at Euston will be a short distance from those at HS1, and one stop on the Underground. That is the equivalent of transferring from one terminal to another at Heathrow.
“I believe the Government should, therefore, consider whether the cost – at around £700 million – is good value or whether it would be better to consider an alternative, which would deliver the benefits of a link without compromising existing services.”
And at Euston itself, David Higgins says there is an alternative proposal that the Government could consider – “a level deck design, which would enable access from one side of the station to the other, better connecting the station to the local area and the community. It could also create the potential for considerable over-site development, which could combine housing, retail and commercial development.
“As in St Pancras and King’s Cross, this would maximise both the aesthetic and jobs impact of the development. Further work can and should be done to develop this alternative – and explore, in particular, how the private sector would help deliver a Euston that lasts, without additional contributions from the taxpayer.”