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Capacity, not speed – the crucial benefit of HS2 that gets drowned out

Capacity, not speed – the crucial benefit of HS2 that gets drowned out

Rail Partners - Capacity, not speed – the crucial benefit of HS2 that gets drowned out
21 August 2023
Andy Bagnall, chief executive

If you’re a regular on the rail conference circuit, you may be familiar with HS2’s ‘Three Cs’ presentation, which outlines the main benefits of Britain’s under construction railway – capacity, connectivity, and carbon. But away from industry discussions, much of the dialogue is understandably focussed on value for money, and whether HS2 is a priority for Britain. The debate has been particularly heated this summer given the Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s recent 'red rating' for HS2. 

With intense scrutiny ongoing over the future of Britain’s biggest infrastructure project, it is easy to lose sight of what the benefits of building a new railway are, and why we need to continue defending them. I won’t be the first to say it, and certainly not the last – the crucial benefit of HS2, despite its name, is capacity, not speed. By moving long-distance traffic from our current rail network onto a new high-speed line, we will create the extra room needed to improve local, regional and freight services, which, in turn, will reduce the number of cars and HGVs on our key road arteries. In addition, HS2 will be integral to the creation of Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), with Phase 2b  providing 22km of new high-speed line to be shared with the NPR core route between Liverpool and York.

Extra capacity has been needed for some time in Britain. Recent research commissioned by Rail Partners showed that in the two decades going up to the pandemic, passenger journeys increased by 107%, with passenger services increasing by 32%. While the coronavirus has had a huge impact, the long-term trend for passenger growth is still upwards. Despite demand increasing dramatically, we haven’t built a new mainline in Britain since the late nineteenth century, other than HS1 in the Southeast of England. The West Coast Mainline (WCML), which connects major cities including London, Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester is now one of the busiest, and most congested, lines carrying passengers and rail freight, in Europe. While engineering work, like the remodelling of the Carstairs junction will help to address these pressures, further upgrades to the WCML, or other mainlines, would mean large-scale disruption – so building HS2 is the only viable option for increasing capacity. 

However, for the full capacity benefits of HS2 to be recognised, we cannot cut corners. You might have heard of the Golborne link, a proposed circa 13-mile connection that would branch off the main HS2 line towards Manchester, to rejoin the WCML near Golborne, just south of Wigan. The link would have relieved congestion, keeping passenger trains on high-speed lines for as long as possible and delivering additional capacity for rail freight services on the WCML - but it has proved controversial, so government removed the link from the HS2 Bill and says it is looking at alternatives. The decision to scrap it is symptomatic of the salami-slicing approach to, and inconsistent delivery of, the project, which is leading to increased costs overall.  

While capacity is one of the big-picture benefits of HS2, there are other elements that deserve more recognition, such as the creation of a green corridor alongside the route. Earlier this month I visited HS2’s 'South Portal' site, just 10-minutes down the road from Rickmansworth. I saw the beginnings of the Colne Valley Western Slopes, which will become 127 hectares of wetlands, wood pasture and species-rich grasslands using chalk taken from tunnelling under the Chilterns. As well as environmental protection, HS2 is supporting green high-skilled jobs. There are now nearly 30,000 jobs and 1,300 apprenticeships supported by the programme, and over 3,000 businesses have delivered work on HS2 so far. What’s more, 97% of HS2’s supply chain is made up of UK-based businesses and 61% of it are SMEs – almost every constituency in the country has someone working on HS2.  

While inflationary pressures make infrastructure projects more challenging, building a new railway is critical not just for meeting our rail capacity needs, but also for driving green growth, and meeting legally binding net zero targets. It is therefore critical that, further short-term delays are avoided, as they will ultimately end up costing more. The best and cheapest way to get HS2 built, is quickly. 

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