HS2 chair calls for better national rail plan

Britain needs to rethink its plans for the existing rail network if HS2 is to deliver maximum benefit for the country’s northern cities, the project’s new chairman said yesterday.

Speaking at the launch of a report recommending the government bring the second, northern phase of the proposed high-speed rail network forward by three years, Sir David Higgins said the scheme had to be better integrated with efforts to improve east-west connections in the North of England.

His report – originally commissioned to suggest cost savings – also recommended building a new regional transport hub at Crewe that would bring high-speed services to the North six years earlier than originally planned.

Though the report, entitled HS2 Plus, didn’t include a reduction in the total estimated budget of the project, Higgins did recommend shelving the planned £700m link with the Channel Tunnel rail link (HS1) in favour of examining other proposals, and reviving plans for a complete redevelopment of Euston station in London using private investment.

Higgins said government, rail authorities and the business community must come together to produce a more integrated transport plan that will maximise the benefits of HS2 by making it the spine of a modern rail system.

‘High Speed 2 has the potential to transform the North, not just individual cities but the region as a whole. But this will only be the case if we can see the bigger picture. So far the attention has been on individual places.

‘We need to think broader than that, properly coordinating HS2 with not just the existing network but also plans for its improvement during the time in which HS2 will be built. That would create the real possibility of improving journey times not just north-south, but also east-west.’

Integrated plan

High Speed 2 will link London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds in a Y-shaped network with trains travelling at up to 225mph but also transferring to the existing network to travel further north at conventional speeds.

Higgins told The Engineer that this would radically solve the issue of overly long journeys between London, the Midlands and the north of England. ‘But there’s still a gap, which is east-west,’ he said. ‘Money will be spent at the same time as we build High Speed 2. It’s not a case of either-or. It’s about the same amount of money to be spent on the existing network, but where is it going to be spent?’

This would include ‘an ambitious plan’ for better connecting Manchester and Leeds but should also include locations not directly served by HS2, he added. ‘You look at cities like Bradford, Wakefield, Barnsley or Stoke. You have to be able to show how those cities will benefit from this investment by either connecting into the new line or upgrading the existing ones.’

Higgins’ specific proposals included building a new rail and road interchange station south of Crewe, rather than tunnelling under the city to link to the existing station. The new hub and the line south to Birmingham would still form part of the second phase of construction but could then be opened three years before the whole scheme is complete.

Because Higgins also believes Phase Two could be completed by 2030 rather than 2033, this means the Crewe station would bring some of the benefits of faster journey times to the North six years earlier than originally planned.

‘You can’t build the phases at the same time because they require huge documents that take two to three years to prepare and two to three years to get through parliament,’ he said. ‘But you can look at what other things you can do in the North that don’t require a bill.’

He gave the example of the planned Northern Hub scheme to alleviate rail bottlenecks through Manchester and speed up east-west services, which he said could be brought forward.

Upgrading Euston

In London, Higgins proposed redesigning the current plans for Euston to include a “level deck design” that would allow access from one side of the station to another and enable more over-site development of shops, housing and offices.

‘Euston will need upgrading in 10 years anyway: let’s do it properly,’ said Higgins. ‘We could not just restore the grandeur of the Euston arch, but build something that rivals [recently redeveloped London stations] King’s Cross and St Pancras.’

He also called the proposed link with HS1 services at St Pancras ‘an imperfect compromise’ due to cost, a lack of evidence for demand for direct services from northern England to Paris, and the impact on existing passenger services, freight and the local community. He recommended the government commission a study of how else the two lines might be joined, for example by a new tunnel or by improving passenger transit facilities.

But, he added, the money saved from the HS1 link, which has been seen as a way of connecting northern cities directly with the continent, should not be funnelled into the Euston redevelopment. ‘Euston must stand on its own two feet,’ he said.

On the overall cost, Higgins said uncertainty over the project meant it would be irresponsible to the contingency budget for Phase One of the project and that it was too early to make a judgement on Phase Two, but accelerating Phase Two would open the door to more cost savings. ‘The more certainty there is about the timescale the more certainty there will be about controlling costs,’ he said.

Government welcome

The transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, said the government supported the ambition to bring the benefits of HS2 to the North more quickly and that he would now commission HS2 and Network Rail to produce more detailed plans based on Higgins’ proposals so they could be considered as part of the public consultation on Phase Two.

The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) also welcomed the proposals. ‘We see no fundamental engineering reason why the line could not be operational earlier than 2033 and experience around the world also indicates this is possible,’ said ICE director general, Nick Baveystock.

‘Government’s efforts to make the case for HS2 must continue and importantly, it should position the project as an integral part of a national transport strategy rather than a project developed in isolation. This includes further work to help strengthen connectivity for those locations not directly served by HS2.’

But Joe Rukin, campaign manager for the group Stop HS2, questioned whether the money for sufficient east-west connections would be delivered if HS2 went ahead. ‘If you had a national infrastructure plan you wouldn’t build HS2,’ he told The Engineer. ‘That’s the problem: it’s always been looked at in isolation.’