The threat to cut the HS2 railway to a short shuttle service between Birmingham and the edge of London could mean that a journey by HS2 is slower than the existing railway.
Citing TfL research, the Mayor of London noted in an open letter to the government that stopping HS2 at Old Oak Common and asking people to switch to the Elizabeth line to get into central London would add so much time to the journey that it would be quicker to use the existing intercity service.
A trip by HS2 between Birmingham and Old Oak Common would take around 42 minutes, but the connection within London between Euston and Old Oak Common adds another 30 minutes, plus an average of 10 minutes changing at Old Oak Common.
TfL’s best case estimate of 1 hour and 22 minutes is slower than the average time of an existing Intercity service between Euston and Birmingham. It would be quite an accomplishment to build a high-speed railway, that thanks to short term attempts to shave a modest amount of money off the cost ends up being slower than the railway it’s supposed to replace.
Yes, it’s true that not everyone will specifically want to end their journey at Euston itself, but on a like-for-like journey, a cut-back HS2 would be slower than intercity services. As Euston is also a lot better connected for onward journeys, it’ll still be the preferred destination to Old Oak Common.
The wider problem though isn’t just speed. As HS2’s primary function is to increase capacity on the rail network so that more trains can fit onto the overcrowded tracks, putting the London terminus at the edge of west London will make it less desirable for many people than continuing to use Euston station.
That implies that the intercity services that should be using HS2’s new platforms at Euston will have to keep using the existing railway — and that kills off any chance of increasing capacity for commuter and regional services to the north of London.
The mess and muddle also affects the levelling up of the rest of the UK economy, not just because the various other cuts being talked about will hamper local improvements, but will reduce the incentive for London firms to move out of London. There’s some evidence that improved rail links between London and the regions encourages businesses to move back-office functions out of expensive London, so long as there’s a reliable rail connection with the head office.
This morning, the former Chair of HS2, Sir David Higgins makes the same point in The Times that improved railways across the UK drives investment and boosts local economies. A cut-back HS2 that can’t take intercity trains off slower regional rail tracks holds back investment outside London.
And there’s no doubt that something needs to be done to increase capacity on the railways as they are already straining to cope with the post-pandemic recovery in passenger numbers.
Although the pattern of travel has changed, the volume is pretty much back to where it was before the pandemic, although revenues are still lagging. The drop in revenue is because white-collar workers can opt to work from home a couple of days a week, and no longer have to fork out for expensive peak-hours season tickets. However, the volume of passengers travelling is back to pre-pandemic levels thanks to discretionary travel — the off-peak journeys which are leaving people repeatedly complaining about overcrowded trains at weekends and evenings.
To help reduce immediate overcrowding, more trains can be added as there are still fewer running than before the pandemic due to cost cutting and lack of drivers — but there comes a point, probably within the next couple of years where the railway will be overloaded and unable to carry any more people.
So despite claims by a number of politicians that people don’t use the trains that much because working from home has killed off commuting, in fact, the railways are bulging at the seams, because people want to travel.
It’s quite possible to hold a business meeting by video link, but how many people want to attend a wedding that way, or a funeral? People travel to football matches even though they could watch the match in the pub on the telly. If there’s one thing we learned from the lockdown, it was that people want to attend important events, and being told to stay at home and watch on a video link was deeply distressing.
Thankfully the lockdown is over, but we face a future where people will be allowed to travel, but thanks to the neglect of the railways, will be unable to travel.
And neglect looks likely.
There is a report in The Independent this morning that the government will confirm that Old Oak Common will remain the London terminus, with all the problems that’ll cause, and that the northern branches of HS2 will be delayed into the future so that the costs are kicked into the long grass for the next government to deal with.
As it happens, some sort of review of the HS2 railway would not be a bad thing, as yes, costs are soaring, thanks in large part to inflation in the construction industry, which is affecting all construction projects, but delays for the sake of delays don’t save money – it always costs more in the long term.
If HS2 is cut back, that would leave the UK with a high speed railway that’s slower than the existing railway, enough uncertainty to dissuade business investment in the areas blighted by the delays, and trains that are so overcrowded that people will avoid using them.