If we cancel HS2 now, Britain would waste a decade of work to revive regional rail networks

Across the country, plans are already being drawn up to take advantage of the extra space HS2 will free up on existing lines

John Peace
Friday 27 September 2019 10:34 BST
What is HS2?

In November 2007 HS1 made it possible to travel at 300 kilometres per hour all the way from the centre of London to the city centres of Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. So it’s easy enough to understand why two years later, when plans were being developed to link the centre of London to the city centres of Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, the Department for Transport should decide to call them HS2.

A decade on, it’s clear our country’s first intercity high speed railway needs a stronger message to help the world understand the transformational effect it will have on the UK economy.

“Capacity” may not be the most exciting argument, but it’s certainly the most compelling. Not only does HS2 provide more than half a million extra seats every day on the new high-speed line, but it is a relief valve that will ease pressure on our existing overcrowded and overloaded network.

By moving long-distance traffic onto HS2, we free up space for faster, more frequent and less crowded services on commuter networks used by millions of people every day.

Some 73 stations across the country stand to benefit from the released capacity HS2 provides. Crucially, 54 of these places are not on the new high-speed network, their communities may rarely or never, use the high speed line, but their local station will benefit from HS2 every day, busting the myth purported by HS2’s critics that the network won’t benefit “normal” travellers.

If you live in Coventry, HS2 creates space for new direct rail connections to the major cities of Derby, Sheffield, Newcastle and York, and less crowded and more frequent trains for commuters travelling to and from Birmingham. For people in Lincoln, currently poorly served by our existing rail network, HS2 means space for more regular, direct services to London, as well as more local trains to nearby Newark and Grantham.

Across the country, plans are already being drawn up to take advantage of the extra space HS2 will free up on the existing network with better connections across and between our regions, in locations as dispersed as Shrewsbury, Hull and Oxford.

To cancel HS2 now would undermine a decade’s worth of plans to improve our regional networks, the vast majority of which either intend to utilise HS2’s new infrastructure, require the capacity it releases, or will capitalise on the growing number of people using the railway every year.

The Oakervee review and HS2 Ltd chair Allan Cook’s project stocktake offer a necessary, considered and transparent view of how much HS2 will cost, and how long it will take to build. However, they also highlight the need to fully quantify HS2’s benefits and the value it will bring to communities in every region. It is my view that, to date, the true benefits of HS2 have been grossly underestimated.

This is true of HS2’s environmental credentials. The extra space it creates on the conventional network is enough for 144 extra freight trains to run every day, which can in turn transport over 2.5 million more lorries’ worth of cargo by rail instead of by road moving goods in this way produces 76 per cent less CO2.

We must learn lessons from the past. This time around, the UK’s regions must not be short changed and left to fight amongst themselves for scraps of investment. Without HS2 there is no Northern Powerhouse Rail, there is no Midlands Engine Rail. Without HS2, the great economic powers of the Midlands and the North will remain isolated from one another, unable to achieve their huge economic potential.

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It’s not our place as public servants to dismiss difficult questions, or to ignore naysayers when we are challenged. It is our duty to do what is in the best interests of the public and to future proof a sustainable transport network for generations to come.

So the next time any of us is asked “why HS2?” we must answer, because the future prosperity of our country depends on it; because our regional communities desperately need it; because the Victorian railway network cannot serve the 22nd century. HS2 will connect our biggest cities, but it is also an investment in our towns and villages. It’s part of the biggest upgrade of regional train services in over a century. It will benefit 73 places across the country. Let’s spread the message and get it built.

Sir John Peace is chair of Midlands Engine and Sub-National Transport Body Midlands Connect

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