Opinion: The National Rail Conference and the strategic case for HS2

HS2The last few months have not been easy for supporters of HS2. Attending a meeting at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester in September I was taken aback at the rising level of opposition to this keynote Coalition Project.

The opportunity therefore to attend the National Rail Conference at the Midland Hotel in Manchester on the day that the Department for Transport published it Strategic Case for HS2 provided an opportunity to hear first-hand why this project was so important.

Though generally supportive for the principle of HS2 as “good for the north” this was my first opportunity to hear the arguments for the project.

First up to speak was retiring Chair of HS2 Ltd Douglas Oakervee whose impressive engineering background from delivering the new airport at Hong Kong to Crossrail was a powerful advocate that the first phase of the project to Birmingham would be delivered within its £17.16B envelope. This would be by using manufacture off site and assemble. Having seen this technique used on the Manchester Metrolink for stations and by Network Rail in the reconstruction of the Haymarket Station in Edinburgh (due to open in December) I can vouch for the efficacy of this process.

Bridget Roswell, an economist who had worked on both HS1 and Crossrail showed the similarities and differences between these projects but also emphasized how difficult  it was for bean counters to get it right.

Pete Waterman spoke passionately about what HS2 could mean for the economic regeneration of the North and Midlands explaining how the electrification of the Coventry – London line in 1968 allowed him to live in Coventry but commute daily to London to pursue his music career.

Anthony Smith from Passenger Focus reminded delegates what happened to customer satisfaction on the West Coast Mail Line in 2004 when upgrade work meant weekend shutdown of the railway with customer satisfaction plummeting to 60%. This is likely to be replicated next year as work around Watford postponed previously caused weeks of misery. Do we really want 15 years of this?

Anthony also listed some of the priorities passengers want to see with the freed up capacity once fast intercity routes switched to HS2. This included additional services from Milton Keynes to London or local services around Stockport axed when Virgin increased services to London to three per hour. Local, intercity and freight al stood to benefit from freed up capacity.

Rob Whyte from ALSTOM explained what his company was already doing to provide 360km per hour High Speed Services on the Continent and elsewhere. This was proven technology.

The tour de force was however the Secretary of State Patrick McLoughlin who tore into opponents of the scheme. As a Midlands MP he wanted to see a 21st Century backbone created for the UK which could regenerate all regions of the UK. He reminded us of the spirit of the Victorians and said there was no blank cheque for HS2.

Back in the 19th century, Brunel started  the Great Western Line before securing full parliamentary approval. It was done on time and budget. Do we not need to see a similar act of faith and support on the major infrastructure projects that could take the UK forward?

* Paul Rowen is the former MP for Rochdale

Read more by or more about , , , or .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Spot on.

  • I have a question and I’m sure people more informed can answer it.. Why is it going to 20 YEARS to build? Surely it can be built faster than that?

  • Yorkshire Guidon 30th Oct '13 - 1:42pm

    Why is HS2 the best project to improve the GDP in the North and Midlands? Where are the comparisons between projects?

  • @ Yorkshire Guidon

    Are there any serious alternatives? Given that serious money is already being put into speeding up and adding capacity in the North with electrification and the Northern Hub, this is not an either/or situation anyway, despite what HS2 opponents are trying to claim.

  • It’s not going to take 20 years to build. Most of that is going to be spent on things like buying property, agreeing planning permission, finalizing plans, consulting neighbours, obtaining listed building consent, agreeing compensation payments, working out construction plans, etc.

    Some of the bigger earth-moving projects will have longer lead-times (e.g. the tunnel under East Midlands Airport), but the vast majority of the actual construction is about five years for phase one and the same again for phase two.

    This, incidentally, is why we need to start planning phase three pretty soon, or there won’t be the finalized plans in the pipeline to continue the construction when phase two is complete – can’t start building until everything on the route has been knocked down and all the owners have sold up.

    One of the strongest features of the Spanish and French approach has been that when one piece of construction is complete, the team moves on to the next part of the network. For instance, the French are currently building Tours-Bordeaux and when that completes, they will move on to Avignon-Montpellier. This enables a single management team to build experience and skills in construction, rather than breaking them up at the end of one project and creating a new team when the next one starts. The French are already planning routes well into the 2030s.

    The Germans, whose construction program has stopped and started, have managed to create the inefficient approach of building up the teams and then closing them down at the end of each project – and have ended up paying a lot more per kilometre of rail than either France or Spain.

    Phase three of HS2 should be the extension to Scotland and perhaps a Manchester-Leeds connection so both branches of HS2 connect to Scotland without having to copy the Victorians and build two lines across the Lake District and the Scottish Borders,

  • Yorkshire Guidon 30th Oct '13 - 2:49pm

    @ RC. Well I haven’t seen any from the Government no but various think tanks and policy wonks have put forward alternatives. Here’s one from the New Economics Foundation:

    The Northern Hub is very good for Manchester but will have marginal benefit to Yorkshire.

  • Brunel did it with private capital and a non-existent planning system… If HS2 is so wonderful where is the queue of investors?

    We should remember that HS2 Ltd was set up for the purpose of doing the detailed work on HS2, specifically getting to a reliable budget figure. However, HS2 have been very clear that in arriving at this figure, many of the government specified ‘mandatory’ requirements will not be satisfied, and corners cut: for example Euston will no longer be redeveloped, the highly restricted link with HS1 etc. etc.. So the fact that HS2 Ltd is confident that the project can be delivered to the budget figure, does not mean in any way that the project itself is worth doing for this price or will deliver any strategic value.

  • While I have someone talking about railways, can we celebrate the opening of Maramaray?


    It’s an astonishing piece of engineering, a submerged tunnel connecting Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus strait in Istanbul. While the tunnel itself is limited to only 100km/h, it will soon connect to the high-speed line to Ankara (already built, less a short connecting piece to Maramaray), and within Europe to Edirne (under construction) and across the border into Bulgaria to Sofia (part complete, part under construction). If the EU’s TEN-T Orient/East-Med project ever gets off the ground outside of Bulgaria (ie in Romania and Hungary), then there should be the ability to run a high-speed train from the main Western European network (including HS2) all the way to Istanbul and beyond.

    London-Istanbul should be in the region of 24 hours; London-Erzurum (where the Turkish lines to Armenia and Iran split) about 32.

    Talk (in the Turkish press release) about London-Beijing is decidedly premature; the lines through Iran need a massive upgrade, and the stretch through Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan is barely even drawn on the map; there hasn’t even been a proper survey yet. Baku (in Azerbaijan) is much more realistic.

  • Apparently this is going to be a ‘red line’ in our manifesto. I’m not going out to argue for wasting £40 billion we haven’t got on a vanity-totem project with a cost-benefit analysis that barely stands up – a project which even the Labour Party thinks is too expensive.

  • For those who like to read source documents the Strategic Case can be found here https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/the-strategic-case-for-hs2

  • Paul Rowen said that: ‘Though generally supportive for the principle of HS2 as “good for the north” this was my first opportunity to hear the arguments for the project.’

    Perhaps he should now commit the same amount of time to understanding the arguments against the project.! Sorry that this can’t be done easily by attending a nice government-funded conference in Manchester, but there’s lots and lots of excellent material out there on the web from bodies like HS2 Action Alliance and 51M.

    Of course Paul came away from Manchester fired up by the case for HS2 – this was the whole point of this expensive PR exercise. That and putting the squeeze on the Labour Party to fall back into line in support of the project.

    Lib Dem opponents of this massive white elephant project, of whom there are many (although a minority in the party it seems), have largely given up on our own party and MPs playing any critical role in giving HS2 the hard-nosed scrutiny it needs when the hybrid bill gets into Westminster next year. It seems we shall have to depend on Labour and rebel Tory MPs. Or will it be the prospect of large-scale tactical voting for UKIP or Green at the next general election that finally changes the political equation?

  • Andrew Gibbs 30th Oct '13 - 6:08pm

    There is a lot of passion and rhetoric in the arguments listed here, but as always if you stand back one step you see that this is the same bunch of vested interests providing promises of bread tomorrow but without any real evidence that even crumbs will result from all this tax-payer funded largesse.
    Looking at the points made – yes the UK has had impressive engineers which made Britain great. It still has impressive engineers and we can certainly build HS2. It will be very fine and possibly even within the latest budget and timescale or at least close enough that no-one should care too much. This is all however completely irrelevant to the question of whether we should build it. For that we look at the costs (money, environment, social) and the benefits (money, environment, social) and decide if it is a good thing or not – remembering we should include all the costs and all the benefits not just cherry pick things that we like or make exceedingly optimistic assumptions (a pervasive problem across all rail planning). For HS2 we come up with a number that is not very impressive, and has a large margin of error which can swing things from ‘goodish’ to ‘rather poor’ – hence all the arguments about details. But there are two other critical points that are vital in this process which often seem to be ignored or dismissed: the first should happen before this analysis even starts which is to decide and clearly state what problem(s) you are trying to solve. Then the second is to compare this particular solution with alternatives that could address the same problems. Pick the best, it is not rocket science.
    This is why HS2 is nonsense on so many levels – it is a pre-determined solution looking for justifications, which is why the ‘reasons’ for building the thing shift every time anyone looks at it. It was going to be an economic success and ecological to boot – but it makes no money and is environmentally damaging. It was going to solve the north-south divide – but all the academic evidence (and the historical actions of Pete Waterman himself) shows that if anything it will worsen things by moving more economic activity to London. It is not the only way to solve the capacity problem, as rival schemes from 51m, the GCR, etc show. ‘Freed-up’ capacity is a nonsense – if you want to run more freight build a freight line, if you want to get more commuter capacity (which is where the real problems are) address that problem directly! And scare stories about having to upgrade the WCML are only fit for small children that don’t understand planned maintenance.
    We should not be doing anything requiring ‘faith’ that it ‘could’ take the UK forward. There are so many other things we _should_ spend money on that _will_ generate huge returns to UK plc, _will_ move the north-south divide in the right direction, _will_ improve the environment, etc. etc. The opportunity cost of HS2 is enormous.
    On the plus point I’m more convinced than ever that HS2 will never be built. The question is really how much more money will be wasted before someone in power has the sense to put political posturing to one side and pull the plug? Despite being a long-term liberal supporter (that has shoved more leaflets through doors than I care to think about) I do know that the party that stands up for common sense in this way will be the one getting my vote.

  • Wouldn’t a new fast line going east west be more beneficial to the north? I live in Chester and it takes 1 5 hrs to get to Manchester, never mind Leeds, York, Hull etc

    if we really want to improve the north lets spend the money on infrastructure up here.

    I am very persuaded that the biggest beneficiary of HS2 will be Old Oak, NW London…

  • Nick Russell 31st Oct '13 - 8:22am

    I agree with Andrew Gibbs and specifically Timple. We do need to share the economic activity better away from the southeast and stimulate jobs in the north, and this London-centric project is no the best way to do it. It’s not even being built from the north down but from London up! Better rail links between northern cities are much more important to enable them to work together better. And I see few arguments for how HS2 will benefit freight and get it off the roads.

    And I completely fail to understand the rationale for bringing HS2 beyond Old Oak Common and into Euston. As a Camden resident I declare my interest but Crossrail will be complete long before HS2, so surely most passengers will want to change at Old Oak Common where a brand new fast line will take them straight into the City or West End faster than to Euston and they will have a simple change rather than a shift from rail to tube.

    So why build the hardest and most expensive last five miles? Is it because they think compulsorily purchasing Euston land and redeveloping it will bring revenues to allay the construction costs? It’s not because of passenger benefits.

  • jenny barnes 31st Oct '13 - 9:04am

    Well said Andrew Gibbs “HS2 is nonsense on so many levels – it is a pre-determined solution looking for justifications, which is why the ‘reasons’ for building the thing shift every time anyone looks at it. ”
    As a project manager, this is so, so common.
    “I’ve got this great project”
    “Good. Why do you want to do it?”
    “Because… because…because … er… it’s just a great project”
    “Ok, no benefits then – it won’t get funding”
    Unfortunately in this case it will. I wonder why.

  • The existing West Coast main line without the principal traffic flows which have moved to the new HS2 will require considerable extra subsidies amounting to several £millions per annum. Some work is already planned around Norton Bridge Junction to improve capacity by building a flyover but most of the towns and cities not served by HS2 will have slower services as they will be served by the semi fast trains instead of the fast trains to Birmingham and the North/Scotland. This is what happened in the 1960s where there was more than one mainline between major centres and fast trains were concentrated on one route with closure of smaller stations and the other route was left with trains stopping at every station and then some of these routes were reduced to single track, although some of them have had the double track restored recently.

    Network Rail seem to have moved on from doing major works at weekends and now close the lines for several days or weeks as this is more cost effective and quicker. Examples of this include the redoubling of tracks on the London – Oxford – Worcester, Swindon – Gloucester, Waterloo -Exeter routes so the idea of 14 years of weekend closures must be regarded with some suspicion. The WCML at least as far as Crewe is mostly either 4 tracks or made up of separate routes which can be used for diversions and this was done during the last modernisation. In addition there is also the Marylebone to Birmingham route which has been modernised and now has a frequent service. This route was valuable during the 1960s electrification although it went to Paddington then.

  • chrisjsmart 31st Oct '13 - 1:03pm

    I would be more convinced of the HS2 project if it had been developed from a comprehensive strategic transport plan. Rail freight in this country will never be properly developed until we accept the European Gauge. Until that happens it is very difficult/impossible to carry full size containers beyond the limits of HS1. The cost of raising bridges and widening platforms to the bigger gauge may well be justification for a new build track. Perhaps the argument for HS2 should be passenger and freight capacity, not speed and if so, it would be a spine from Glasgow to Dover with off shoots east and west. If we are serious that it can help our economy then it should be built starting from Birmingham simultaneously to Manchester and towards direct connection to HS1 and Europe. Passenger capacity would be increased by the ability to use “double decker” carriages. High speed then becomes a nice to have bonus if the green economy can afford it.

  • I love big engineering projects instinctively but not this one because its an extremely expensive way to achieve very little. Want to improve north south journey times and reduce air pollution in Birmingham? Nationalise the M6 toll and remove the charges. Want to make it quicker to get into London? Hire more immigration officials. Want to reduce standing on commuter trains? Reconfigure and reduce or remove 1st class. Want to get more freight on the rails? Analyse freight traffic, and build new lines but it doesn’t require the extremely expensive purchase of London property to do this, most freight doesnt have to go into the centre of London. I’d support spending this money on improving connections between the Midlands and the North, but the possible benefits of this to the North will take too long to materialise if ever. There are other ways to increase capacity into London. HS isnt even environmentally friendly. Long distance commuting is not environmentally friendly. There are better ways to spend this money to achieve positive network effects than blowing it all on one single solitary line.

  • This seems far more likely to me to extend the London commuter belt even further and further imbalance the country. We already have the most capital-centric economy in the 1st world and it’s being exacerbated by the government’s policies.

    Rebalancing not politically expedient I guess.

  • Earlier this week on Newsnight it was revealed that the latest increase in forecast revenues is down to a massive projected increase in the proportion of the more valuable business passengers – from around 30% to 65% if memory serves – handily offsetting the latest increase in costs.

    They really are making this up as they go along.

  • Don’t think I mentioned that HS2 is going to be prohibitively expensive as a passenger service, sorry. That said if its primary business case is for freight it doesn’t need to be going into Central London at enormous cost.

    Our trains as a whole could be described as prohibitively expensive but we still pay because we’ve little option.

    HS1 carries a premium over standard rail but is used by commuters. There is little reason to think that HS2 would be any different. It’s not impossible to think that people can move out of London / the South East to larger homes with bigger grounds and commute drawing the same salary they previously did and paying the saving on accommodation towards transport.

    Of course that HS2’s business case revolves around people not doing any work on trains is a different matter. If the government and politicians in general can’t present a coherent case, whether it revolves around freight or passenger traffic, they should be thinking long and hard before spending our money on it.

    Would still love to know why we can afford this but have to essentially PFI our power generation, signing the most expensive non-hydro electric deal in world history with the slowest construction timetable of a nuclear power station to date and leaving industry analysts gobsmacked. It’s a great deal for France and China and their profits will go into EDF’s shareholders, including the French government, and the Chinese government. Not so great for UK homes and businesses who will pay twice the going rate per MWh for the plant.

  • Martin Lowe 31st Oct '13 - 6:14pm

    @ Nick Russell (8:22am)

    We do need to share the economic activity better away from the southeast and stimulate jobs in the north, and this London-centric project is no the best way to do it.

    This particular Londoncentric project is a first, as it’s the only Londoncentric project in living memory that will exist in a place other than London.

    And whilst there are theoretically better ways that we could address the North-South divide, in reality this is the only one on the table.

    And if it is killed off, then make no mistake – the rest of the country will get nothing to take its place.
    Boris is already itching to get his greedy paws on the cost allocation and splurge it on Crossrail 2.

  • Kevin Cognito 31st Oct '13 - 7:22pm

    Andrew Gibbs makes some cogent comments on HS2 and the fact that the alternatives have not been considered. How can any rational person argue that we should simply press on with what will be the UK’s largest infrastructure EVER, unless all the alternatives have been fully explored and the reason for it properly examined? If the case is so strong, why do two of its original proponents – Mandelson and Darling – now say they disagree with the proposal? For three and a half years since Mar 2010 the HS2 proposal has been a project looking for a reason. If you don’t believe that, look at what Peter Mandelson said on 2 Jul – http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2013/jul/02/lord-mandelson-hs2-expensive-mistake

    Having spent 3.5 years focusing on speed, which will require massive new electricity supply and speed certainly is not green, the Govt. now says “it’s all about capacity”. If so, then go back to the drawing board and if its only capacity, design a railway that meets the true capacity needs. It was, is and will continue to be only a political vanity project. It doesn’t serve what the great majority of train users actually need and want. The Labour Govt. commissioned an extensive report on UK rail and Sir Rod Eddington’s “Eddington Transport Study 2006” specifically stated that Govt. should invest in the UK’s existing railway structure and warned against investing in High Speed Rail. Read it here
    Labour ignored this transport study advice that they had requested and paid for, purely for political gain in the lead up to the election. Again, if the case is so strong then ask the passengers who use it every day what they want. In every UK poll the majority have voted against it and the margin against is continuing to grow. See the YouGov poll just completed, despite the scaremongering about disruption.

    HS2 does not in any way solve the question of getting freight off the road. HS2 is NOT designed to carry freight. The capacity issue that Govt. has now fallen back on will NOT be solved by HS2, despite Govt. spin (such as the “voodoo economics” of KPMG’s supposed £15 Billion of benefits. There are far cheaper solutions to the capacity issue – see “better than HS2”. The government tried and failed to label those against as NIMBYS but that attempt has failed with more and more people the length and breadth of the country coming out against it.

    Are we seriously saying that we cannot do so much more for the many parts of the country that are deprived, North, West (Wales), the Southwest, with £50 thousand million pounds. I say that with parents from Leeds and Wakefield. The Govt is showing a total lack of imagination, other than massaging the egos of Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne and Mr Clegg, in pursuing this enormous white elephant project, whilst disingenuously claiming in court that “they have not yet made a decision” on HS2 in defending the court action against them for not carrying out a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) BEFORE deciding on which route to choose?

    Remember this
    Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river.
    ~Nikita Khrushchev, Soviet Leader of the USSR, 1956-64

    In summary, whichever Party you vote for, do continue to find out as much as you can about HS2. Read all the arguments and ignore all of the govt spin, then, as many many people are doing, make up your own mind on whether the alternatives have been properly considered and whether spending this enormous amount of money on one single project with highly questionable justification makes sense.

  • @Kevin Cognito:

    HS2 does not in any way solve the question of getting freight off the road. HS2 is NOT designed to carry freight.


    HS2 is designed to add extra capacity to the entire network. Freight capacity will come about on the EXISTING network when inter-city traffic moves from the existing network to the HS2 line.

  • Robert Wootton 1st Nov '13 - 12:42am

    Domestic flights between regional airports is an alternative way of transporting people between the north,south, east and west of the country. The high speed transmission of information from the Orkneys to the Scillies; Aberystwyth to Grimsby. In other words, high speed broadband across the whole country would be a far better investment in Britain’s economic future.

  • @Martin Lowe
    “Freight capacity will come about on the EXISTING network when inter-city traffic moves from the existing network to the HS2 line.”

    To achieve this implies there is no need for the additional (passenger) capacity provided by HS2, since passengers (of existing lines) will switch to HS2; resulting in a (long-term) reduction in demand on the existing network which can be filled with freight. However, if you bothered to read the strategic freight framework and the projects the government has funded, you will see that new freight only capacity is being created, with limited impact on the existing commuter/passenger rail infrastructure.

    No Andrew Gibbs, Kevin Cognito and others have made valid points; HS2 always was and is a political vanity project.

  • Martin Lowe 1st Nov '13 - 9:18pm

    You’re making stuff up to bolster your own preconceptions, Roland. Kevin was being disingenuous; I responded to that point and you go on to make half-baked assumptions. If you actually knew as much about rail as you think you do, then you’d recognise that freight and passenger traffic do not operate in total isolation of each other. But unfortunately, you’re one among many in this country that believe they are an expert on rail infrastructure planning just because they been on a train.

  • No Martin, Kevin was correct HS2 doesn’t help in getting freight off the roads, however the new (freight only) line linkings rail depots in the Midlands with Felixstowe docks will do, at a significantly lower cost than HS2 phase 1 and with a business case to match. Likewise the new (freight only) line between Southampton docks and Nuneaton.

    As I pointed out the primary thrust of the HS2 capacity increase has been directed at increasing the number of passenger slots, by effectively removing long distance expresses from the WMCL and running these services on HS2, thereby enabling more ‘local express’ services to run. Yes some of these slots will be used by freight, but the primary purpose of HS2 is to increase passenger capacity not freight capacity as you imply, on the WCML. The increased freight capacity is largely being delivered separately to the passenger network.

  • Martin Lowe 2nd Nov '13 - 7:45am

    …but the primary purpose of HS2 is to increase passenger capacity not freight capacity as you imply…

    I implied no such thing. You’re inventing things to bolster your own position again.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • Thelma Davies
    @Nonconform. I'm stating that it's my responsibility & my husband's that my children were toilet trained & had basic reading and writing skills prior to...
  • Mary ReidMary Reid
    @Simon Atkinson - I am so pleased you like our musings on Max's impact within and beyond the party. And please accept my sympathies to the whole family for the ...
  • Chris Moore
    @ExLD Leeds: that's a ludicrous reason not to vote LD. Theakes is in a vanishingly tiny minority regarding the desirability of PR, as you must well know. LDs...
  • Mary ReidMary Reid
    @David Raw - yes, you can register as an online member and vote for £20. I did it last time and it worked well. And anyone can watch it for free on the Lib Dem...
  • Simon Atkinson
    Thank you so much for these wonderful comments everyone, and for the smashing tribute, Mary. He would have been so chuffed to read your kind words. Max wasn't a...