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How did we end up with High Speed 2?

Ask a cross-section of travellers what’s wrong with Britain’s railway system, and you’ll get a variety of answers.Commuter trains too crowded; trains across the Pennines too crowded; connections between regional cities either non-existent, or poor quality compared with services to London.  

What you won’t hear are complaints that journeys from Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham to London are too slow. So it’s a mystery, how we’ve ended up with High Speed 2 (HS2).

But as critics have questioned the true value of each minute sliced off the journey time from Birmingham to London, the argument for HS2 has switched seamlessly to capacity, and now connectivity and integration.

Any new railway will add capacity to a congested network. But will HS2 add sufficient capacity, and is it the best solution? HS2’s target market should be the cities of the Midlands, the North and Scotland currently served by East Coast, Midland and West Coast routes. But HS2’s two tracks only have the capacity to serve the primary cities. Bypassed secondary cities such as Coventry, Stoke, Leicester and Derby will be left reliant on slower and reduced services on the existing network. This points clearly towards a two-tier, two-speed Britain.

There’s a compelling analogy with the motorway system. Nobody would seriously suggest building the M1 with a single lane in each direction, and preventing traffic from intermediate cities from joining it, through the simple expedient of failing to build any interchanges. Yet this is exactly what will happen with the two-track HS2, without a single junction to the existing network between London and Birmingham.   

The belated aspiration for HS2 to deliver connectivity and integration is similarly futile. The entire routeing concept for HS2 was developed with extreme speed the priority, and little or no thought for either connectivity or integration; these desirable outcomes cannot now be retrofitted onto the project, any more than Concorde could be converted into a Jumbo jet.

The HS2 project is now staggering from one crisis to another. David Higgins’ elimination of the “suboptimal” HS2-HS1 link, and his proposed extension to a “super-hub” at Crewe, make considerable engineering and operating sense. But with no prospect of continental services, and with HS2 services reaching Manchester perhaps a decade before Leeds, the coalition of regional support underpinning HS2 is crumbling.

Other “sub-optimal” aspects of HS2 remain unchanged, for example its unprecedented length of tunnel. Tunnelling and other costly mitigations have been specified to address local concerns; but these are still not enough for the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee, which has criticised HS2 for its high environmental impact, and its failure to cut CO2 emissions.   

Further costly engineering might address local environmental impacts; but no-one has begun to explain how HS2 might achieve CO2 reductions approaching the 80% cuts demanded by the 2008 Climate Change Act.

The time has come for a radical rethink of the UK high speed rail initiative. It is necessary to recognise that the “sub-optimality” of HS2 is endemic, and cannot be resolved with further fixes. It is necessary to make brave decisions, to abandon the fundamentally flawed HS2 and find an alternative scheme.  

That scheme is High Speed UK. Fully integrated with the existing network, its four-track spine from London to the Midlands and coverage of all primary main line axes (including TransPennine) will transform capacity and connectivity.  Step-change modal shift will enable radical cuts in CO2 emissions; shorter route length andtunnelling will reduce construction costs by at least 25%; and intercity journey times across the network will be cut by around 40%.  

This is true high speed rail; delivered not by the extreme speed of HS2, but by connectivity and full integration.

  • Colin Elliff is civil engineering principal at High Speed UK which is developing alternatve proposals for a UK high speed rail network.

Readers' comments (4)

  • Congratulations to Colin Elliff for describing exactly what many of us feel that investment in improvements and interconnectivity across the whole rail (and transport) network will offer far better returns for our nation than HS2 alone.

    I experienced similar frustrations when the Highways Agency and Balfour Beatty refused to consider the A46 Widmerpool to Newark improvements (completed in 2012) in a regional context. The narrow minded, focus on the A46 corridor alone, with expensive complex junctions and excessive land take provided little or no benefits to regional travel in South East Nottinghamshire or for traffic on the A52 into Nottingham. It is interesting to note in today’s NCE that this ‘blinkered’ approach seems to have done few favours for the companies concerned.

    John Greenwood, 15/05/14

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  • High Speed UK looks very much like HS2 Plan B on the NorthStart website:


    For North South Divide reasons, construction of Plan B would start North-first, with a direct link between Manchester Victoria and Leeds. It would from the outset halve the rail times between the two city centres and join up a Northern Cities Crossrail system between Liverpool to the west and Hull to the east. At its centre it would fast-connect a cross-Pennine economy half as big again as Birmingham.

    HS2 Plan B also stops at East Midlands Airport, the obvious driver of a larger economy for that region. And it uses existing transport corridors where possible, in particular the M1-M6 corridor between London and Birmingham.

    Surprise, speed-first HS2 will not do any of that.

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  • Colin Elliff is saying exactly what many of us have been saying since the initial consultation on HS2. I was part of a group that submitted an alternative approach to the Governments Transport Select Committee, and we did discuss this with Colin. However they were dismissed by the Committee.

    I would be very happy to discuss this further with Colin or others who think that an alternative approach is essential.

    Nigel King, MICE e-mail

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  • Perhaps if future administrations are prepared to spend "whatever it takes" on the NHS, they will realise that HS2 is absolutely unaffordable.

    I agree that High Speed UK seems far better planned & crucially, value for money.

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