HS2: a key element of the UK's Transport Strategy


The 2019 UK Rail Summit welcomed over 200 delegates to KPMG's Canary Wharf Offices in London, last week. The one day conference brought key industry figures together to discuss the challenges facing the UK rail network right now. 

The second session revolved around HS2 and how it is a key element of the UK's Transport Strategy. David Fowler reports on the this session below

HS2 will be like a tree, with its roots in London, its trunk running to the West Midlands, and its two principal branches connecting the Manchester and Leeds. This initial network will connect eight of the UK's 10 biggest city regions, said HS2 senior adviser Prof Andrew McNaughton. "It's about connecting as many cities as possible within an hour of each other," he added. "Phases one and two are a coherent tree and will support future extensions."

Prof McNaughton opened session 2 of the 2019 UK Rail Summit, on Why HS2 is a key element of the UK's transport strategy, by returning to the project's original raison d'etre.

Nearly 10 years ago the guiding principles had been agreed with then secretary of state for transport Andrew Adonis.

A key challenge was to provide a swath of new capacity, he said. The existing railway had to juggle the opposing needs of capacity and availability and connectivity/speed and reliability. "There's only so much you can do with the existing railway," he said. "HS2 will allow a repurposing of the existing railway. People sometimes forget it's partly about getting traffic of the existing network and maximising capacity." It was also about bringing people together and, through faster journeys, capturing the benefits of agglomeration for the economy.

But HS2 also needed to be a 21st century railway, Lord Adonis had insisted. Taking inspiration as much from Japan as anywhere, it must connect the major cities of Britain, aiming to maximise the number of people who could travel rather than profit.

It was not about only connecting with London but connecting other cities. For example it would allow Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow to be connected in a way the old railway was unable to do. Stations would be sited in the best locations to generate growth.

He said the line "is designed to be as fast as necessary, not as fast as possible. We haven't pushed the limits on speed but we have pushed them as far as we can on capacity."

With 15 trains/hour carrying 1,000 people each, HS2 would have more capacity than two three-lane motorways or a jumbo jet landing every minute.

Jim Steer, director of Greengauge 21, took issue with the recent Channel 4 Dispatches programme in which a senior transport adviser had asked "How do we know HS2 is the right thing to do?" and "There was no big picture. We just don't know if there was a better way..."

In fact, in 2004 the Department for Transport had published a two-year Atkins study into a new north-south high speed line in comparison with expanding the motorway network, expanding existing rail lines and building a new line at existing speeds. "It concluded high speed rail offered the best value for money of all options and identified why it was needed," he said. On any projection in 2000 or 2001, by the mid-2020s the West Coast main line would be full, and a few years later the East Coast min line as well."

The DfT did not follow this up, which led Mr Steer to set up Greengauge 21 to put forward the arguments for high speed rail. Lord Adonis sought the position of transport minister to push the project forward. "When Andrew Adonis turned up he was able to say 'Don't worry, the studies have already been done'."

It was necessary to recognise that HS2 was not just a construction project: what was being built was an operational railway. It would extend well beyond the new infrastructure – London-Glasgow trains would run half on HS2 lines and half on existing – and it would need single operational oversight. "How are we going to create the single operational body for that railway?" he asked. "We should be thinking about it now."

HS2 remains vulnerable to attack by those who opposed public spending in general, especially big public sector investments. But he took issue with the idea that the project was in crisis. It faced challenges, including budget pressures. But changes in scope did not necessarily mean fewer benefits.

Last year Greengauge 21 had produced a report Beyond HS2 advocating extending the Y network to an X with a route upgrade south-west from Birmingham to Bristol/Cardiff. This would also provide a very good cross-country service from the North East to the South West and broaden the beneficiaries from HS2 Phase 2.

Since HS2 was originally planned, Transport for the North and the idea of Northern Powerhouse Rail had come into being. This provided the opportunity to connect more cities in the North. But Mr Steer warned: "I don't think it would be a good idea to abandon some of the later stages of HS2 and just invest across the North," he argued. "The Northern Powerhouse Rail plans build on HS2, presuming it will be fully implemented.

He reminded delegates that the UK lags on productivity, it has a very unbalanced regional economy and the most congested transport networks in Europe. "These are inter-related problems that we can't ignore," he said.

Frazer Henderson, Transport Scotland head of high speed and cross-border rail policy, said his purpose was in reality to increase the size of the economy and hence tax receipts. "A vibrant economy allows us to make the investments needed to address social ills," he said.

An effective economy needed good physical and digital connectivity. Digital connectivity in the British Isles was very good, physical connections less so. Scotland was connected to England by a motorway on the west, a dual carriageway on the east, and two railway lines. "On the East Coast line we can't even get the train paths we need to use it effectively," he said. "Capacity is very constrained." Hence "Scottish ministers are very supportive of high speed rail. We can see the benefits and what it would mean for the economy."

However, from the point of view of rebalancing the economy, he asked: "Does HS2 just provide new capacity between Leeds, Manchester and London and leave Scotland more isolated?"

Journey times between London and Glasgow would only be reduced by a sixth and the Manchester-Glasgow reduction would be marginal, he said. "This is important in perception terms and what it means for inward investment." Would investment all land between Birmingham/London and Manchester/Leeds?

Because of this in 2016 Scottish and UK ministers came together and charged the DfT, Transport Scotland and Network Rail to come up with interventions to address and ameliorate these concerns, and improve connectivity between central Scotland and England.

The organisations had undertaken feasibility studies and had come up a number of improvements which they expected to be able to take forward in control periods 7, 8 and 9, subject to funding.

A feasibility study had been undertaken between Edinburgh and Newcastle which showed that the journey time could be reduced to 45 minutes, which would be "a real game-changer". What was not known yet was the value that would bring to the economy, so in 2019 and 2020 work would continue to develop the business case for this, and also for projects between Lancaster and Oxenholme and potentially York to Northallerton.

In summary, he said: "We'd like to go further and move faster in achieving a network which complements what we're doing on HS2 to improve capacity and connectivity for all of our economy."

Hitachi sales director Nick Hughes quoted the DfT's transport investment strategy from 2017, which said: "High performing infrastructure can enable delivery of the [government's] Industrial Strategy".

Investing in major rail projects supports new rolling stock, including research and development in train building and maintenance. It helps to support and expand UK supply chains, creates or protects jobs and helps to boost skills, training the next generation of engineers. It could help to develop a UK export market in high speed rail, while new trains running on reliable networks improve the experience for passengers.

Hitachi and Bombardier last year formed a joint venture to design the next generation of high speed trains. Both had a considerable pedigree in designing and building high speed trains, and wanted to build on the success of the Shinkansen in Japan and Bombardier's Zefiro range to develop a completely new high speed train for the UK.

They had assembled a cross-functional team that draws on both companies' expertise in the UK, Germany, Italy and Japan, based in a new office at Millennium Point in Birmingham.

The two companies also had a pedigree in collaboration, designing one of Europe's fastest trains, Italy's Frecciarossa 1000.

Bombardier had a history of 180 years' trainmaking in the UK. Hitachi opened its Newton Aycliffe factory in 2015 and was a co-founder of the Durham University Technical College for 14-19 year olds.

Overall, he concluded, HS2 was "a once in a generation opportunity to leave a transformational UK rail legacy".