Shouldn’t the South be better connected to HS2?
Published on Monday, 22 April 2013 06:36
Quite aside from continuing arguments over the need for High Speed 2, there is also interesting debate within industry and transport journals over whether the Department for Transport has got it right in regard to the route.
Aware of the criticisms and setbacks being faced over the suitability of Euston, we are intrigued by suggestions that Stratford would be an infinitely superior location. From our perspective this raises some very interesting opportunities in regard to the ‘spine and rib’ Brighton Main Line – especially if BML2’s proposal to link across to Canary Wharf and Stratford International is pursued.
Such proposals are not coming from uninformed observers or those with a particular axe to grind, but people who know a thing or two about railways. For example Richard Keegan, formerly British Rail’s Director of Projects, is firmly of the opinion that the current route between London and Birmingham involves wasteful and unnecessary expenditure, whilst missing valuable opportunities for economic growth and better connectivity precisely where it matters. He believes Stratford International is the key and is proposing a more strategic solution, which would not only avoid the hugely contentious Chilterns areas, but instead run more usefully via the Lea Valley towards Bedford and on to south of Birmingham – where it would join the rest of the planned route.
Keegan reckons the current plan is seriously flawed, citing four principal reasons:
- 1) HS2 won’t serve Heathrow – the only reason for going west of London.
- 2) It fails to provide HS2 with a critically-important international role – believing the inferior HS1-HS2 London link will never be built.
- 3) It fails to overcome Euston’s fundamental weaknesses.
- 4) It fails the need to boost overall capacity and drive UK-wide economic growth.
He points to the need to create “a railway for the future” right from the outset, connecting into HS1 to Ashford International and taking HS2 trains through to the continent, thereby providing a strategic main rail artery for regeneration on a massive scale that only Stratford International and the fast-growing eastern side of the capital can provide.
Keegan has been critical of the ministerial mind-set which initially suggested that HS2 should serve Heathrow – but believes the promised connection to the airport “at a later stage” will never be built – “there is no other reason to route HS2 via west London” he recently told Today’s Railways. He is also convinced that there is a host of other reasons against the currently-planned Euston route and says the whole project becomes simpler and far more beneficial to the country with Stratford International. Significantly, he says it would not only be quicker but also cheaper to build.
He predicts enormous congestion problems if Euston goes ahead, whereas full connectivity with HS1 through Stratford would create a high speed railway between Paris/Brussels, Birmingham, northern cities and Scotland. There are many other practical reasons why he believes Stratford is infinitely better-suited, not least for a variety of railway operational purposes. He also makes the point that the currently-proposed and contentious route serves no areas designated for regeneration, whereas HS2 could materially benefit the business sector located in the eastern side of the capital, as well as the important commercial activity in the Thames Gateway.
Even with a ‘Crossrail 2’ he says Euston won’t offer any connections to London’s airports – unlike Stratford which already has direct links to London Stansted – and with BML2 we can add London Gatwick! He also asserts that Birmingham’s HS2 customers will be principally aiming for Canary Wharf and the City.
Keegan is not alone. Only last month, Rail Professional featured the assessment of Michael Wand, whose experience embraces chief development surveyor with London’s Docklands Development, strategic advisor to the HS1 route planning team in the early 1990s, and Eurorail’s bid for HS1 in 1995.
In an article ‘Rethinking HS2’ Wand looks beyond Birmingham with his ‘NorthStart’ scheme. He similarly warns of intrinsic flaws in current thinking and argues for a substantially more useful and productive high-speed route for the British taxpayer between London and Birmingham; one which connects London Stansted and the research capital of Cambridge with the manufacturing Midlands.
He believes the presently outlined route, far from benefiting Birmingham will actually be to its detriment, worsening the north–south economic divide, rather than ameliorating it. Interestingly, Wand also comes out firmly in favour of Stratford International as the superior hub for access to HS2 and HS1 which would be situated on not just one seamless high-speed railway, but also served by London’s east-west Crossrail.
Along with this, other journals have raised concerns about serious miscalculations over costs and disruption in trying to adapt Euston as a terminus for HS2 and landing the country with a second-rate project.
Whatever lies ahead for the UK’s second high-speed railway remains to be seen. However, as we have mentioned, there are related implications for BML2 even though it is not on the same scale as HS2. The short cross-Thames connection between Lewisham – Canary Wharf – Stratford International is going to be needed anyway, not only because it would open up superior connections across London, but in order to deliver the rail capacity the capital needs.
With BML2, many towns and cities such as Chichester, Worthing, Horsham, Brighton, Croydon, Lewes, Eastbourne, Tunbridge Wells, etc, would be directly connected to Canary Wharf and Stratford – as would those north of the Thames. If Keegan and Wand are right, then ‘Stanwick’ (the Gatwick–Stansted dedicated air – rail link featured in New Civil Engineer last year) would also intersect with HS1 and HS2.
Similarly benefiting would be the spin-off ‘Thameslink 2’ – uniting counties on both sides of the Thames divide and taking pressure off London’s Farringdon core. This would serve all the new Docklands residences in a manner unsurpassable by any other development as further investment, growth and prosperity would naturally follow.
BML2 may not have the wow factor of a high-speed project, but it’s critically important to the south as the only means of providing sufficient capacity and the all-important new connections into the capital from an overcrowded and congested part of the country. And although BML2 is not in the same league as HS2, as Christian Wolmar perceptively pointed out, it nevertheless has the potential to deliver even higher benefits pound-for-pound.
As we have seen recently, cross-party consensus backing BML2 is gathering pace as its opportunities and benefits are gradually being appreciated. We just hope that those responsible for strategic transport planning will listen, get it right and, as Keegan says, not land us with lost opportunities.