The UK’s high-speed network project HS2 is undergoing a major slimming down in the part towards the Midlands. The authorities intend to shift the focus of rail policy to local and regional transport in this region. But with what money?
Let us first set the scene for this railway episode. HS2, the UK’s biggest and most controversial infrastructure project, is a massive project intended to create high-speed rail links between London and major cities in the Midlands and North of England, to join cities like Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. Work has already started on the first phase, linking London and Birmingham.
The next stage called 2a will extend the line to Crewe. And the final phase was to take HS2 to Manchester and Leeds. Unfortunatly at this stage, HS2 has faced delays and mounting concerns over spiralling costs, creating great political uncertainty about the project.
HS2 was originally priced at £32.7bn (€39bn), but in 2013 this estimate was revised up for the first time by £10bn (€12bn). At the time, the Department for Transport stated that it would not necessarily need to use all of the £42.7bn (€51bn) budget. Since then, costs have steadily risen. A government-commissioned review in 2019 estimated that the final outlay for HS2 could reach a staggering £106bn (€126bn), over three times the original budget.
Why a such spiraling costs?
Essentially due to management issues and unrealistic land valuations caused costs to spiral. According to some sources a large number of properties had not even been assessed at fair value. In addition, extensive soil surveys were not carry out, which resulted in significant additional costs due to digging and excavation problems.
While it is often said that major efforts are being made to invest in railways, in reality, the British had to find that the Treasury has always been seeking to rein in spending on infrastructure amid wider concern about the costs of HS2. The Oakervee review said in 2018 that HS2 should be built in full but warned the final bill for the whole network could reach £106bn (€126bn).
In an interview in October, the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said he is not planning to “blindly follow plans dawn up 20 years ago.” He suggested that a major rethink of the high-speed rail project between Birmingham and Leeds could be in order.
This led to the realisation of a new plan called Integrated Rail Plan (IRP), which is based on the Oakervee Review of HS2 published in February 2020 calling for an further review to ensure that HS2 and other major railway schemes are scoped, designed, delivered and operated as an integrated network. IRP takes into account value for money, the so called government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda, affordability and deliverability.
The main £96 billion IRP’s elements of the released on Thursday can be summarised as follows:
- Northern Powerhouse Rail project (NRP), a rail network for the North of England between Leeds and Manchester, will be in fact a combination of new track and enhancements to existing infrastructure.
- The TransPennine Main Line will be electrified and upgraded, with longer sections of triple and quadruple tracks and increased clearances for freight. This will be managed as the first phase of Northern Powerhouse Rail.
- but above all, the extension of HS2 from the East Midlands to Leeds is scrapped. HS2 trains will instead run on existing lines, like in France.
The Government says it ‘will look at the most effective way to run HS2 trains to Leeds including the most optimal solution for Leeds station capacity.’ This could include a spur running south from Leeds, but not linking directly into HS2.
This new plan has obviously been very enthusiastically received by many anti-HS2 people, although the section between London and Manchester will still be maintained. On the other hand, many elected representatives and chambers of commerce in the Midlands have strongly criticised the change of heart. By contrary, DfT says rail benefits to come 10 years early.
Driving on existing tracks
The branch to Leeds is not totally aborted but largely shortened. A cut-back eastern leg of HS2 will be built between Birmingham and East Midlands Parkway, with trains continuing to Nottingham, Derby and Sheffield on an electrified Midland Main Line. HS2 trains would serve Nottingham and Derby city centres directly, replacing a planned station serving a regeneration zone at Toton, located between the two. That means HS2 will stop at existing stations rather than a new outside hubs, which would be highly beneficial for connections with public transport and other regional trains.
The problem is what it means to « continue on the existing tracks ». While the new HS2 lines are built to UIC loading gauge and European TSIs, the existing UK network have not this loading gauge. That means that British passenger trains have narrower loading gauges than the UIC loading gauge. What trains will have to be built when the original intention was to finally run trains « as in Europe »? Hitachi Rail and Siemens will not be able to present a Frecciarossa or ICE as built on the Continent in their bids.
Another railway policy
The analysis that can be made of all this is that the government is aiming to raise the Midlands to the same economic (and political?) level as the wealthy South East of England. Through the IRP, government policy for the Midlands is thus geared towards regional travel between major cities in central England (Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham,…) rather than connections with London.
Further evidence of this commitment to the centre of the country is this previous communication of the UK government announced the introduction of contactless ticketing at more than 700 stations in the whole country, including 400 on commuter networks in the Midlands, with introducing London-style price caps and greater integration with local bus and tram networks.
There are now many grey areas in this IRP and financial uncertainties remain about the funds available. The Treasury has already put the brakes on for the other major British rail project, the Great British Railway which ended to certain forms of privatisation. Government had to take the lead for better railways. Now we know: rail will not get all the money it was thought it would…
21/11/2021 – By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling and freelance copywriter
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