The heavily trailed green light for HS2 was, with typical flair, announced as a “green signal” by the Prime Minister. The statement started with an ode to London, the productivity of our city, and the role that transport infrastructure plays in supporting that. And he was clear that “there is far more to do in London.”
This is good news for those of us who want to know what “levelling-up” means for the capital. He then moved on to explain the rationale for HS2 in his own inimitable style: “We will not fix the great musculoskeletal problem of UK transport [with local transport alone]… yes, we must fix the arthritis in the fingers and the toes, but we also have to fix the spine.”
The decision to back HS2 echoes the unequivocal conclusions of the Oakervee Review: “The primary need is for capacity… HS2 should be thought about as a new railway that enables fast inter-city services to be on segregated lines to free up capacity for commuter and freight services.” However, this endorsement – both from Oakervee and from the Prime Minister – came with some caveats.
Between Old Oak Common and Crewe the plans look likely to proceed more or less as expected. This is in effect the merging of phases 1 and 2a of the project, as recommended by Oakervee, and is the section for which HS2 Ltd will still be responsible. Phase 1 looks set to get formal “notice to proceed” next month and legislation for phase 2a will be revived to complete its final stages in the Lords. The line will now have a staged opening between 2028 and 2031. The changes that have been announced are about delivering the project better, with tighter controls on costs, and are to be welcomed. There will be a new full-time HS2 Minister and greater oversight for the project, for example.
But it is at each end of the project that the major changes are to be found.Here in London, there are two stations planned. Travelling south from Birmingham, HS2 passengers will first arrive at Old Oak, near where the Heathrow Express turns off the Great Western Mainline, west of Paddington. Some had been trying to convince Oakervee that the line should stop here. That would be a bad idea, and Oakervee agrees: “Not going to Euston would have a significant negative impact on the business case for HS2… [and] Even a reduced frequency of HS2 service to say 10 train per hour would likely cause crowding issues [on Crossrail]… Euston station is an important part of realising the benefits of HS2, and the section from Old Oak Common to Euston should not be removed from the scope of the project.”
But Oakervee goes on to say that, “Old Oak Common should act as the temporary London terminus for HS2 services until Euston station is complete, so time taken to get Euston right does not delay the start of HS2 services.” The government will publish a full response to Oakervee’s recommendations shortly, and this will give us a clearer idea of how, and for how long, such an arrangement could work.
The fundamental issue here is that Euston is highly complex and behind schedule. As Oakervee concludes: “There needs to be a single plan for the overall Euston project. In order to help deliver this single Euston plan, one organisation should bring together all the stakeholders and be responsible for the overall development and governance of the Euston project. Given the complexity of the Euston project, this organisation should not be HS2 Ltd.”
Using Old Oak Common as a temporary terminus is viable, providing it is time limited. There is a pragmatic reason for doing so: we need to ensure that we maximise the huge opportunity that HS2 brings to Euston. Taking the time to get this right is sensible, providing the organisation tasked with doing so has the leadership, powers, and resources to get to grips with the complex mix of projects and stakeholders.
There’s a 1960s station that’s unfit for purpose, which existing mainline and London Underground services use. The addition of HS2 will require a brand new station to be built. Provision will also need to be made for Crossrail 2, the next big strategic transport investment London needs including to relieve overcrowding as passengers transfer to Transport for London services. And that’s just the transport. There are multiple commercial and residential property developments above and around the station too. Just as the Kings Cross-St Pancras area has been totally remade, so too will Euston be.
The other end of the project will be rebadged as High Speed North. This will be an integrated plan for the route north of Crewe – what has so far been known as Phase 2b – and the Northern Powerhouse Rail scheme. It looks highly unlikely that HS2 Ltd will be asked to take this forward. The first priority is to ensure that this review of the plan is short, sharp, and effective. Oakervee recommends it should last six months and is clear that the principle of the scheme should not be under question: “The evidence is clear that the full network is needed to realise the highest value for money economic return on the investment of HS2.”
Any hint of long grass or significant downgrading of the specifications will equate to short-changing the North. But if we get this right then the result – not just in terms of the physical infrastructure that gets built, but also the less tangible impacts in terms of high-skilled employment opportunities – will be transformational for the North.
And that really is the crucial point: HS2 is a transformational project. It answers the fundamental need for more – and more sustainable – transport capacity and will revolutionise the way we travel around the country. But it will also be a catalyst for growth, jobs, regeneration and, yes, levelling-up. This is already being felt in Birmingham and the changes to the delivery plans for the London end of the route are designed to ensure that the same opportunity is seized here in the capital. Now our attention must shift to delivering on this promise.
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