The HS2 railway might never reach Euston and Old Oak Common could become its permanent London terminus in an effort to avoid the cost of building the station at Euston.
Old Oak Common can, just about, cope with the number of trains that would run between London and Birmingham, but it cannot cope with the additional trains that would be coming from Manchester and beyond. The terminus at Euston is needed not just because a key benefit of railways over airlines is their city terminuses, but because Old Oak Common cannot support HS2 if it extends north of Birmingham.
With reports that the government is considering scrapping the next stage of the HS2 railway north of Birmingham, then it could be just about possible for Old Oak Common to act as the London terminus.
However, HS2 would then fail to deliver the main purpose of the railway, which is to increase capacity on the suburban and regional railways as most intercity services would still be departing from Euston station using the existing railways.
So we’d end up with a relatively short shuttle service from Birmingham city centre to the edge of London, and, well, that’s about it.
According to The Times, proposals to scale back the project to being just the shuttle link are being drawn up by Downing Street and the Treasury.
Along with the reported plans to stop the railway at Birmingham and not extend it to Manchester, the line would be cut back to Old Oak Common to save the nearly £5 billion cost of building Euston station.
A senior government source told The Times that the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak had “made up his mind” to scrap both the Manchester link and the line running into Euston.
“Unless he can be persuaded to change course it is a done deal,” the source told The Times, although they added that the rump of HS2 would mean the government had spent most of the money but with almost none of the benefit. “Ending the line at Old Oak Common is pretty much the definition of a railway to nowhere.”
The government has previously committed to building the railway to Euston station but put the project on hold for two years to review the plans and spread the cost of the project over more years. Although announced as a cost saving measure, it will almost certainly push the costs up instead and was more about meeting an arbitrary political target for government borrowing limits.
It’s not just a short-sighted decision, it’s also, in the scale of government spending, a very odd one to shave a comparatively small amount of money off the bill in exchange for an enormous political cost.
To put the cost of Euston’s HS2 station into context, it’s about 5 percent of the HS2 cost (assuming the £100 billion cost of the whole railway), but that’s spread over some 20 years. Over the same period of time, Network Rail will spend around £160 billion on the existing railway. So spending £5 billion on Euston comes out of a total railway budget estimated at £260 billion — it’s almost a rounding error in the scale of railway spending.
And yet the damage from not building Euston station is almost unfathomablely large.
It’s worth remembering that HS2 is an investment, so it’s funded by borrowing against future income, not today’s taxes (excepting interest payments) so cuts to the project won’t then release more money to spend on things today — it just means less money in the future from a smaller economy.
The delay in building Euston station has left the area as a large wasteland in central London affecting businesses and residents alike. It’s also not fully paused as HS2 still has to spend money on maintaining the site and is carrying out enabling works to move utilities out of the construction site.
As annoying as it is to live next to a construction site (and I have often), it’s tempered by knowing that at least eventually it will stop and what’s built will improve the area.
Not building Euston’s HS2 station is the worst of all worlds.