Jack Brereton MP is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent South.
HS2 has long been trailed as a vital ingredient of leveling up the North and the Midlands. But the harsh reality may be far from it. The project is out of control. Costs have sky-rocketed and benefits have diminished.
Already way over budget, the costs of Phase 2 are set to eclipse anything that has come before it. It will probably end up costing nearly double the current £28 billion earmarked (at Q3 2019 prices).
Furthermore, a detailed examination of HS2 proposals shows that, rather than improving capacity on the West Coast Mainline, Phase 2 will do precisely the opposite, especially at Crewe. Without a similar scale of investment in the existing conventional network, it is inevitable that any existing capacity problems will be shunted further down the track to the detriment of existing services across the North West.
Most people see sense in continuing with Phase One of HS2 because of the £25 billion already spent and the costs of trying to reverse the construction already underway between west London and Birmingham. However, with a relatively small amount spent on Phase 2, where no significant ground works have taken place, the same is not true for it, especially given its continuation will cause more problems than it would solve.
The train service specifications that form HS2’s own most recent Strategic Outline Business Case show that the company has significantly scaled back service proposals from those previously proposed and the promises made to places such as Crewe.
Only two stations north of Birmingham; Runcorn and Liverpool, would see a better service post-completion of Phase 2 than they do today. Stations in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Carlisle, Penrith, Oxenholme, Lancaster, Blackpool, Wigan, Warrington, Wilmslow, Crewe, Stockport, Stoke-on-Trent, and Stafford, would all see a worse service post-Phase 2 than they do today. Many of these stations would see services to London cut by 50 per cent, or, in some cases, reduced to no intercity service at all.
This is predominantly due to the constraints of the network at Crewe, which will only be exacerbated by the construction of Phase 2. Crewe is at capacity and the removal of the Golborne Link, with no feasible alternative in mind, means all HS2 services would be required to pass through Crewe Station on the West Coast Mainline when Phase 2a is completed.
HS2’s proposals would require three additional train paths in each direction per hour in each direction, even with the removal of all existing Avanti Pendolino services, but these do not currently exist. The only solution is therefore to withdraw existing regional and local services to make way for HS2 services to use the already overloaded Crewe North Junction.
HS2 knows this is a problem and this is why its previous promise to have five trains calling at Crewe each hour has been slashed to just two. Because of this, it will no longer be possible for passengers using Crewe Station to catch an inter-city train any further north than Lancaster. HS2’s proposals also mean that none of its Manchester-bound trains will call at Crewe.
As a result of such poor planning, Phase 2 will prioritise HS2 services to a small number of destinations at the expense of local and regional services. Interconnectivity for the North will be left worse off making it harder to interchange with services at Crewe and beyond.
But there is an alternative. This would get the most from HS2 Phase One which, contrary to popular belief, does not end at Birmingham. In fact, it continues north to South Staffordshire where it connects to the West Coast Mainline via the ‘Handsacre Link’ just north of Lichfield.
This connection would enable ‘Phase 1+’, taking HS2 trains to Manchester, Liverpool, and all other existing West Coast destinations, reversing the cuts to existing services that HS2 would otherwise impose.
By scrapping Phase 2 and reinvesting some of the £28 billion saved in key upgrades to the existing network north of Handsacre, it is possible to deliver high-speed rail sooner, cheaper, and with comparable journey time savings. Building new capacity into the existing network where it is most needed.
It would also free up money to complete the otherwise unaffordable HS2 hub at Euston. It would even enable some planned HS2 services to reach northern destinations if Old Oak Common becomes the permanent London terminus to save another £8 billion from the overall HS2 budget.
Phase 1+ would mean all those destinations up and down the West Coast would be guaranteed a service, which is currently under threat if Phase 2 proceeds as planned. For my own city, the current fastest journey time between Stoke-on-Trent and Euston is 83 minutes. This would be reduced to 70 minutes with the Phase 2 proposals but could be cut to just 63 minutes from Euston, or 58 minutes from Old Oak Common, with Phase 1+.
The dividend from not building Phase 2 can be reinvested in other important transport infrastructure, as well as the schools and hospitals that communities across the North and Midlands so desperately need. It would deliver far greater value for money and would better level up communities than could ever be achieved with Phase 2.
What is clear is that people want better-connected places. We need more rail capacity, but this is not just about getting to or from London and it can’t come at any price.
Although good links to London are important, more people want improvements to local and regional transport connectivity and care passionately about investing in schools, and hospitals, and in creating stronger communities that will truly represent levelling up.