"Bend an ear and listen to my version...."
I s’pose I’d better admit that I used to be a train spotter, although you’ve probably guessed that already. I was in short trousers when I ‘copped’ Evening Star, the last steam locomotive to be built by British Railways, I think pulling ‘The Red Dragon’. But we thought that the new diesels were great; they heralded an age of modernity and progress. These days I don’t much enjoy railway travel. It is not just that the trains are so expensive or the relentless cacophony of headphones boring into your skull but the way they constantly reinforce to you what a rip off privatisation is. You get on the train and immediately hear threatening announcements about what will happen if you have the wrong sort of the ridiculously complicated tickets, and it does too; ritual humiliation and a legalised scam. ‘Next train’ announcements insist on telling you the name of the fucking train company before the destination, as if we care – actually we own the railway. And then there is nowhere to sit at St Pancras to wait for your Nottingham train unless you buy something from a global capitalist (or to be fair Sourced), yet the station was built with our bloody Mapperley bricks! So I am not romantic about railways, but I do think they would be a good idea if run as a public service, as does everyone on the left/green spectrum.
St Pancras - made in Nottingham (the bricks)
However HS2 is not a good idea; in fact it is a catastrophically bad idea and a fatal distraction from what really needs to be done to improve our railway system. I have always been suspicious of grands projets which seem to be strongly related to male pride (or inadequacy) and national chauvinism. If the Frogs have got TGV and RER then we must have them too or we are not pissing high enough up the wall of international prestige. This extremely grand projet has been parachuted in as a solution without any serious analysis or debate about what the problem is or any honest evaluation of alternatives. Worst of all there is no effective scrutiny as the job has been outsourced to a company, HS2 Ltd, which is owned by the DfT and run by single minded enthusiasts - what a very modern way of doing things. The justification for HS2 is now being sold and spun to us by a bunch of consultants that we end up paying very handsomely for.
HS2: London benefits at the expense of the regions
There is a lot of number crunching and modelling behind HS2 but the real issue is the validity of the founding assumptions. HS2 was first proposed as a means to help boost the economies and competitiveness of provincial cities a la Heseltine. Sounds like a good idea but when we look at the figures it turns out it actually boosts London’s economy more than the provincial cities. Then it was promoted as a ‘green’ project to reduce air and road traffic and thereby reduce CO2 emissions. However the modeling unfortunately points out most passengers will transfer from existing rail and there will be hardly any reduction of flights or of CO2. But the Tories had got into a mess over the 3rd runway for Heathrow so decide on HS2 as some sort of alternative, which of course makes no sense at all. Nevertheless Cameron needs to look decisive and visionary; he wants to try and lift morale in the enveloping economic gloom. What better than a grand projet where the costs and the chickens coming home to roost are way in the future. This is how political decisions on big infrastructure projects are made.
Lord Adonis, dreaming of HS2, would not electrify the Midland Mainline
I met Lord Adonis once, when he was just launching the HS2 kite. I said HS2 would be a nice idea but what we really needed was electrification of the Midland Main Line. The MML line serves 3 of the 9 largest cities in England outside London – Sheffield, Nottingham and Leicester and important places like Derby too. It has long been starved of investment and has the slowest trains of any main line, especially to Nottingham which is paradoxically its biggest market. More money was spent on car parks for Richard Branson’s Virgin trains under Labour than was spent in total on improvements to the MML– amazing but true. Even Network Rail could show a cast iron economic case for electrification, it is a no-brainer, but Lord Adonis as transport minister would make no such commitment. At the same time he was dreaming up HS2.
Nottingham: new tram network expanding over the station
Blair and Brown’s cowardice over rail privatisation and the failure to plan long term investment in the rail infrastructure is a shocking indictments of the last government (one of many). The one thing the Coalition has got right is to commit to a major programme of electrification and improvements of the ‘classic’ rail network, including MML. You may doubt how this can be delivered given the hopelessly protracted way DfT procures and the ravaged and fragmented supply industry but nevertheless in theory MML electrification and major infrastructure upgrades will be completed by 2021. Major upgrades are also programmed for the East Coast main line which will substantially reduce journey times to Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh. St Pancras and King’s Cross have already been magnificently restored and remodelled, as has Sheffield’s fine Edwardian station. Sheffield has made this a central plank of its regeneration of the city centre with impressive improvements to the public realm including a fine new square in front of the station. A £60million renovation and expansion of Nottingham Station is underway, largely due to the persistence of and significant funding from the City Council. Rebranded as the Nottingham Hub it is the focus for the £480million expansion of Nottingham’s tram system, as well as for bus and cycle improvements. Nottingham’s planning policy (like Sheffield’s) is to focus new development around the Station because of its public transport accessibility.
Sheaf Square at Sheffield station - shows what out-of-town can't do
Award winning 'Gold Route' links city centre to Sheffield station
High Speed 2 enters the Trent Valley here, near Sawley
Toton Marshalling yard - the site of the HS2 East Midlands station
Plans for extending HS2 to the city centres of Manchester and Leeds with links to the West Coast and East Coast main lines northwards have recently been published. On the Leeds line there will also be intermediate stations at Toton and Meadowhall. You probably know about Meadowhall – as featured in The Full Monty it is an out of town mega-mall built on the ruins of Sheffield’s metallurgical industries some four miles from the city centre that it devastated. But Toton? Only serious train spotters know about Toton.
Toton: getting ready for High Speed sprawl
Toton field already earmarked for out-of-town mixed use
Toton is a largely deserted marshalling yard on the edge of Nottingham, six miles from the city centre and nine miles from Derby. It is close to the notoriously congested A52 ‘Brian Clough Way’ between the two cities, and hence to the M1. The HS2 station is to be called the ‘East Midlands Hub’, confusing as no-one knows where the East Midlands is and Pickles has just abolished it. The Nottingham Hub is presently under construction and East Midlands Parkway which is on the MML only opened a few years ago three miles away down the MI. The headline is that HS2 would take only 51 minutes to London, compared to the lethargic 1hour 45 minutes from Nottingham on East Midlands Trains at present. It will have a ginormous car park near the M1. Result happiness, except that Toton is hopelessly inaccessible from either Nottingham or Derby. It is not on the MML but a freight line with no passenger services. So new shuttle trains are proposed from Derby and the Nottingham Hub, which counter-intuitively would take you northwards to catch your southbound London or Birmingham HS train. The Nottingham tram could also be extended although this would inevitably be slow. Even with frequent shuttle trains it is going to take an extra 20-30 minutes including the inconvenience of changing trains.
HS2 doesn't give a monkeys about urban renewal in Derby
So the real journey times from Euston to Nottingham or Derby city centres would be about 1hour 20minutes. Even today EMT do St Pancras to Derby in 1hour 31 minutes and with electrification and other planned investment in the MML this could be reduced to about 1hour 20minutes. Nottingham is closer to St Pancras than Derby and similar timings are easily possible. Sheffield will be well under 2hours from the capital. However the HS2 business case claims that 80% of passengers from Nottingham will transfer from MML to HS2, and to help this heroic punt come true, hidden in with the small print, you find the assumption that direct trains from the new Nottingham Hub to St Pancras will be cut by half. Well, that will do a lot for city centre competitiveness, I don’t think.
Nor does it give two figs about crossing with ease at Leicester station
So actually Nottingham, Derby and Sheffield get a worse train service to their city centres, where most people want to be, than they do now - but great if you want to drive to a Parkway station. Leicester, a city of some half a million people loses out too. It is bizarre if not surprising that a project which started with the aim of boosting provincial cities should end up promoting plans which will hugely undermine city centres and urban economies and positively promote exurban motorway sprawl. All the cities have planning policies to focus development in city centres and on brownfield land, and to reduce greenfield development to a minimum. The Nottingham/Derby green belt is there specifically to prevent the coalescence of the two cities, so it is fairly obvious that locating an HS2 station here is a bad idea.
What is so frustrating is how ridiculously un-joined up all this is. Is it really so difficult to grasp the links between planning, regeneration, sustainability and transport infrastructure investments? But when you have a grand projet it develops a life of its own, it becomes a juggernaut and nothing must get in its way. HS2 are determined about that as Anna Minton shows in ‘The Lobby and the Failure of Democracy’. Their lobbyists have successfully focused the HS2 debate on nimbys in the Chilterns versus growth. But actually the Chilterns AONB is important for the benefit of the nation, not just for local toffs.
The HS2 case is a house of cards stacked on a series of questionable and sometimes dubious assumptions. When did we decide that the only future for the Midlands was as a dormitory of London and that promoting long distance commuting was a sensible idea? It may be the case that passenger numbers will grow exponentially at the rate we saw during the Blair-Brown financial bubble, but why is it a sensible policy to make this a self fulfilling prophecy? The DfT maintain that the West Coast main line will run out of capacity south of Rugby by 2025 but this is highly questionable especially with the revelations that Beardie is running his Virgin trains half empty in the rush hours to maintain his rip off peak fares. Lord Adonis claims it would cost more to provide higher capacity on the WCML than to build HS2. Well, he would say that wouldn’t he, but it is absurd to maintain there are no other cheaper, more incremental and flexible options.
Edward Watkins was "a pig headed man". Plus ca change.
For a start, half the trains heading north from Euston on the HS line will not be to relieve the allegedly crowded West Coast line but replacing Midland or East Coast trains where speed and capacity enhancements are already planned and station capacity already available. Further improvements are also possible without spending the megabucks required by HS2. There is already the alternative Chiltern main line to Birmingham which could be further upgraded to take more traffic. With Crossrail taking over Thames Valley commuter services there should surely be spare capacity at its original Paddington terminus. Then there is the old Great Central, another hubristic high speed line to the North that Beeching axed. Its route is still largely extant from London through Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire to Rugby and could be reinstated to provide additional capacity for the congested section of the WCML with much less environmental disbenefit than HS2.
Porte-cochere renewal: calling at Sheffield, Leicester and now Nottingham
The strength and weakness of the HS2 project is that it is a completely new network. You can’t build it incrementally and it doesn’t connect with the ‘classic’ network (although hybrid trains will run north of Manchester and Leeds). It really only serves Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds and bypasses other important places such as Milton Keynes, Coventry, Stoke on Trent, Leicester, Nottingham, Derby and Sheffield, cities whose economies and planning and sustainability strategies are effectively being sacrificed to the glory of the grand projet.
HS2 will actually arrive in only three city centres. Slow hand clap.
HS2 is seen by its promoters and the government as a virility test; it is no longer capable of objective analysis, just like other expensive symbolism such as Trident. But the cost will be eye-watering; even the promoters say it will cost £30billion, plus the rest, and take 20 years to build. Would it not be more sensible to spend this money on improvements to the network as a whole? And would not the big city cheerleaders be better off with investment in their urban transit systems? What European city of Manchester’s significance does not have a proper metro system? Birmingham has only a single tram line. Leeds will be lucky to get a trolleybus. Meanwhile we blow billions on HS2 - this is crazy.
St Pancras - made in Derbyshire (the iron girders)
However, despite the gloss and the spin HS2 has an Achilles heel, Euston. Ministers and mandarins know little and care less about transport outside the capital but are touched by London issues. The fantastic and unreal plan is for HS2 trains to arrive at tube like frequencies – every 3 minutes or so which will require a massive expansion which be extraordinarily difficult to deliver. The models predict trains will disgorge thousands and thousands of extra passengers into the already thronged concourse. Euston is only served by 2 tube lines, the Northern and Victoria, whereas King’s Cross/St Pancras (where many of these passengers will transfer from) has 5 tube lines plus super Thameslink. Boris Johnson has foolishly scrapped the sensible plan for a tram from Euston to Waterloo. But he is plainly right when he says that Euston cannot possibly cope with the vast projected increase in passengers without further tube lines and Crossrail 2, which are not in the of the plan or the budget.
Kings Cross improvements - has it all been in vain?
Belatedly proposals have been made for a grand new interchange with Crossrail 1 at Old Oak Common, which Theresa Villiers accurately if disparagingly described as ‘somewhere near Wormwood Scrubs’. So if this plan works HS2 trains will run half empty into a huge new Euston white elephant built at vast cost and with destruction and community damage evoking Dombey and Son. This will not be made right by reconstructing the Euston Arch in front of it. The Euston plan just does not make sense and the Lords are plotting an alternative plan for an underground HS2 station beneath Euston, St Pancras and King’s Cross so that trains can run direct via HS1 to the Continent. So perhaps the eccentric Sir Edwin Watkin (he who wanted the Great Central to continue to Paris) was right – just 120 years ahead of his time. Dreamers and visionaries there are aplenty but train spotter Lords are herbivores; HS2 is a serious carnivore determined to get its way.
Tomorrow just got worse (former GCR bridge, Leicester)
The impact of HS2 on the rail network as a whole will be massive – it will completely change the structure of train services on the West Coast, East Coast, Midland and Cross Country networks. There has been no consultation or discussion about this, principally because no one has thought it through and basically we are just going into this huge grand projet blind. There is no overall plan for the railway network, no consideration of the implications of concentrating finance on one big prestige project, or the impact of inevitable years of blight and indecision for the future of our national rail system. Indeed the problems have been deliberately hidden and there has been no honest debate. HS2 is only interested in its own game – just look at its website, all gloss and spin, evasive on real information. This is a very British debacle.
Christian Wolmar on HS2