Opinion: Time for Lib Dems to ditch HS2 for alternative HS1 extension

P1090440With a recent COMRES poll showing 52% of the public are against the current HS2 plans and with 70 seats and 600,000 Lib Dem voters affected, I sat down one day and decided to find a better scheme. One which did unite the north of Britain to London and the South, one which didn’t cost the earth, one with a minimal human impact and one which actually linked up with HS1, Eurostar and the Channel Tunnel – none of the things HS2 can boast off, but all of which an extension to HS1 would. My scheme would be faster, cheaper and better than HS2.

I remind fellow Lib Dems, that while the party strongly supports high speed rail that HS2 was neither in the 2010 manifesto, nor the route spelt out in the Coalition Agreement. In supporting the current scheme we are backing a ruinously expensive toxic amalgam of Labour and Conservative ideas.

In April 2014 I had drawn up a route of 182 miles which passed through the lowest population areas, linking London Stratford International to Leeds New Cross. The scheme would cost only £16 billion compared to the £42 billion and counting HS2 costs.

Because it’s shorter, and passes through more countryside than HS2 it’s average speed would be higher than the 170 mph of HS2 and the Leeds-London journey would be only 59 minutes. Phase 1 could be built before 2020 with phase 2 going direct to Edinburgh by 2024 or before. HS2 makes a mistake not to include Scotland.

The Stratford International station already links to HS1, and was used with great success in the 2012 London Olympics with the Javelin Service. HS1a will deliberately miss out Birmingham and Sheffield. The first does not need high speed to London, the second close enough to the Leeds hub. Phase 2 would also include a Leeds-Manchester link a boost to Northern growth.

I strongly believe HS1a as an alternative can give the Party a scheme which will win us a million votes instead of risking 500,000 votes and allow us to use the £26 billion savings in other priority areas. The outline plans can be viewed here.

* Jonathan Pile contested Wakefield (Crofton,Walton & Ryhill) in May 2014, is a signatory to Libdems4change.org and Acting Coordinator of LibdemFightBack.

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  • You’re not the only one. http://www.highspeeduk.com/abouthsuk.html

  • Toby Fenwick 1st May '14 - 5:32pm

    I agree that there should be a firm commitment and timetable to get to Scotland in phase 2, not least because this would be helpful in demonstrating the value of the Union in September.

    But I’m afraid I don’t support your proposal. The reason for a west coast routing via Birmingham and Manchester is to provide additional capacity on the southern West Coast Mainline which is to all intents and purposes full. The whole reason for this routing is to go where the people are, not through open countryside.

    On cost. HS2 is currently £42.5bn for Phase I & II track, but this includes £14bn of contingency, £13bn of which is for phase II. We should expect this to fall to perhaps £2bn, meaning that a realistic outturn cost will be something like £31bn.

    Let’s build it as it is, with firm commitments for Scotland via Preston and Newcastle via Leeds added to Phase II.

  • John Barrett 1st May '14 - 5:48pm

    The current HS2 scheme has many attractions similar to the ill fated scheme to give Edinburgh a new tram system. At the time of the original proposals almost every political party in the city signed up to the promise of a £500m four year construction cost of a clean, efficient modern transports system. What resulted was an over budget, long delayed, much reduced in size, 6 mile tram line which, seven years after construction began, has still not taken its first fare paying passenger. The political fall out included the Liberal Democrat council group being reduced from the largest party in the city to a rump of three councillors – now the fifth largest party in the city after the Greens. As one who supports a much improved high speed network in the UK, I believe the current HS2 scheme will no doubt suffer similar budget increases and delays in construction and even then it will not deliver the network we need for the future of rail transport in the UK.

  • Toby, agreed, but we should also seriously be committing to connecting to Liverpool as soon as possible after Manchester. The negative impact on Liverpool of the competition from the better-connected Manchester should be minimized. The KPMG survey had Liverpool badly negatively affected, and it’s not a city we should accept suffering that sort of impact.

    Done right, the Liverpool line can be built as the first stage of a Liverpool-Manchester-Leeds line (that then links through to York and Newcastle) as well as a connection to Birmingham and London.

    For me, there are three key elements of a future HS rail: Birmingham-Manchester, Birmingham-Leeds and Leeds-Manchester. HS2 builds two and offers a realistic prospect of the other one; all of the alternatives I’ve seen proposed build at most one of these three links.

    If you’re building that core triangle, then the obvious way to connect to London is from Birmingham… like HS2.

    Every other proposal is just about connecting other cities to London. This is about connecting them to each other. Building up the East Coast gets Leeds a better connection to London. But it gets Leeds no connection at all to Birmingham, no Manchester-Birmingham connection, no Newcastle-Birmingham connection. Take a look at the Leeds-Birmingham service, or Newcastle-Birmingham on national rail enquiries. It’s pathetic.

    Finally, you have to go through a nice bit of the Home Counties to get from London to the Midlands and North of England. You don’t get to avoid nice countryside, because we’ve built everywhere else already. Someone’s house is going to be next to the line. Use an existing transport corridor (a motorway or an existing railway line) and you have to demolish everything that’s been built next to that: thousands of homes, scores of businesses along the M1 or the M40 – unless, of course, you closed the motorway to build the railway, which would be complete madness.

  • Am I missing something? The route you’re proposing completely misses the two biggest cities outside London (Manchester & Birmingham)

  • Anders Hanson 1st May '14 - 6:16pm

    “The first [Birmingham] does not need high speed to London”
    It may not need HIGH SPEED but it certainly does need a line. A large part of the case for HS2 is that there isn’t enough capacity on the West Coast Main Line to Birmingham and then on to Manchester. Your proposed route wouldn’t help solve that problem.

    ” the second [Sheffield] close enough to the Leeds hub”
    Are you seriously suggesting that people will travel 35 miles from Sheffield to Leeds to catch a train to London?

  • Denis Mollison 1st May '14 - 6:37pm

    The HSUK plan does look better connected than HS2, especially in connecting with HS1, allowing easy connections to the continent for us north of London.

    HS2’s appeal to politicians is the usual one of grandiose projects; the economic case is dubious, and it seems more likely to further add to London’s domination rather than strengthen the economies of the midlands and north. And what price will tickets be? We need investment to provide affordable rail travel over many routes, not put all our cash into HS2. Amd as to the “West coast route needs more capacity” argument, I understand there are other routes with worse capacity problems that HS2 won’t help.

  • Whilst both HS1a and HSUK offer interesting plans, I see they are both England centric (like HS2). As I’ve pointed out before if we are serious about regional ie. UK development then the primary line has to be: HS1, Cardiff/Swansea, Dublin, Belfast, Glasgow. A nice thing about this alignment is that we could probably get EU funding for all segments not in England…

  • Toby Fenwick 1st May '14 - 7:46pm

    The crucial point is that HS2 phase 1 is about capacity on the southern WCML, for which it is effectively an additional pair of tracks. Given that it needs a new alignment- you can’t squeeze more tracks onto the existing route, you have a choice of speed- since TGV speeds aren’t that much more than normal speeds on a new line, it makes sense to go higha speed- not for Birmingham but for Manchester amd especially for Scotland.

    Edinburgh/Glasgow to London in <2h30 shpuld be the target, in which case domestoc flight demand is significantly reduced, meaning reduced emissions domestically, and more slots at London airports to go long haul.

    But I do hope we can get agreement to build the Scotland sector as part of phase 2.

  • George Carpenter 1st May '14 - 8:11pm

    Why not build both?
    Borrowing for investment in infrastructure, rather than consumption will increase tax receipts, making the “it costs too much” argument null and void.
    China has built 6000km of high speed rail in 10 years why can’t Britain do something similar and keep up with the trend of more people using public transport.
    As a environmentally conscious party, we have a moral obligation to build more high speed rail to connect Edinburgh with Paris and reduce emissions by more people using trains instead of flying.

  • @Toby Fenwick
    1. I suggest you reread all the HS2 documents, WCML capacity was not part of the rationale for the project – it was a throwaway project to try and make a stale Labour party and government look modern and forward looking. Capacity and all the other justifications came later.

    2. I also suggest you reread the various WCML capacity reports where you will find the unequivocal evidence that HS2 will permanently destroy WCML passenger capacity. Also if the issue really is WCML capacity then there are other more cost effective ways of increasing it to the levels that the projections indicate – unfortunately none of them play to politicians vanity in the way that HS2 does.

    No unfortunately Hs1a and HSUK are late to the party, 451 MP’s have gone for vanity rather than exercise their brains, so the chances of any change are very slim.

    The only question mark I see is that with the national debit destined to grow to £1.5 trillion by the end of this parliament, is whether the government who will be even more financially constrained than this one, will actually commit to spending £2~3 billion a year now on something that even the most optimistic forecast indicates won’t be a net generator of wealth anytime before 2070. To illustrate the mess the government has got itself into: it has been able to get business interested in investing in new nuclear but not in HS2….

  • Toby Fenwick 1st May '14 - 10:25pm


    I’ve read the WCML RUS, and it seems pretty clear that there is a capacity problem by 2024 on the southern WCML. The 51m proposal seem sensible enough in themselves, but demonstrate that it is extremely expensive to get marginal improvements on the WCML.

    I’ve seen nothing at all that suggests “where you will find the unequivocal evidence that HS2 will permanently destroy WCML passenger capacity”; could you point me to something please? Intrinsically it is hard to understand in that HS2 will add 16tph of capacity for long-distance high-speed (LDHS) to the WCML, moving many of these services to the new line, releasing paths to commuting and shorter distance flows.

    @Joe – a hub in Hebden Bridge seems like an excellent plan, of course.

  • Tony Greaves 1st May '14 - 11:30pm

    Oh dear, more nonsense. The idea of building a new line from London to Leeds through the least densely populated parts of England just repeats what is wrong with the ECML. The point of HS2 is that it links most of the main population centres (major cities), not just a link to London. It does need a different design in Leeds, however.

    Tony Greaves

  • @Joe Otten
    You missed Sheffield – Sheffield.

  • 42 billion. Sheesh. It would be cheaper to build Birmingham half an hour closer to London.

  • How refreshing to see all this Lib Dem criticism of HS2 deriving from an Opinion piece not written by me! My long-standing opposition to the whole concept of HS2 is well documented in previous LDV Opinion postings.

    Unfortunately I fear this is all too late. The HS2 Hybrid Bill gained its Second Reading in the House of Commons on Monday, and therefore the “principle” of HS2 (which includes its “broad route alignment”) is now settled.

    Regrettably, and despite my best efforts to persuade them otherwise, not a single Lib Dem MP voted against the Bill. I share Jonathan Pile’s fears about the electoral consequences of the Lib Dems’ gung-ho championing of this deeply unpopular scheme.

  • Frank Booth 2nd May '14 - 10:35am

    The author appears to suggest that HS2 should go from Mancheser to London via Leeds????? That isn’t to my mind going to be much of a time saving. 30 minutes? And what about Liverpool? Presumably at some point a high speed line could be built from there to Manchester on to Leeds getting to London in about 1hr50. Not much difference to now. Birmingham, arguably our 2nd city, isn’t even involved. Is this chap from Leeds?

    Other than the cost of building it, the other big question is how expensive will it be to use? We know that most of the very high earners in the UK are based in and around London. Who else will be able to afford this? Rail fares are expensive enough as it is.

  • @John Whitehouse
    I’m not sure if it is too late, what I find quite interesting (in a puzzling way) is that the hybrid bill is only for the (significantly reduced) standalone London – Birmingham section of HS2 – pretty much what Labour originally proposed and what both the LibDems and Conservatives found distinctly lacking; a further bill is required for the ‘South Yorkshire’ extension. Which effectively guarantees that the talked about service improvements to Leeds and Manchester won’t happen until 2033.

    Given that the bill is not expected to become law until after 2015 (assuming the next government carry it forward) and the bill for the South Yorkshire section would need to be introduced by the next government and that both David Cameron and Nick Clegg were absent from the debate and votes, I suspect that the odds on HS2 being dropped or delayed are actually quite high.

  • Sorry I think your proposal is stark raving bonkers. The core part of HS2 is London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and the North West. The sooner it moves forward and the digging starts the better.

  • @Toby
    Yes I agree there are capacity problems on the WCML of the which those on the southern section are perhaps the most pressing. The challenge was how to address them? The quickest and cheapest is to close the line for several years and get on with it, however, the decision has been made to keep the line open and hence require work to done in small chunks overnight and at weekends, which will take longer and cost more and is not expected to result in the same levels of capacity on completion.

    Obviously having the ability to route trains over alternative routes whilst all this work is going on would be very useful. To me the HS2 rah rah crowd have grabbed this and turned it on its head and hence announce that HS2 is the solution to the WCML capacity problem, overlooking the fact that once HS2 goes live, it will be impossible to run the existing timetabling on the WCML. So whilst there will be an increase in total rail capacity between London and Birmingham, there will be a drop in the contribution the WCML makes. This drop being caused largely by the HS2 decisions concerning use of WCML infrastructure assets into London Euston, combined with how HS2 may also utilise WCML infrastructure assets around Birmingham, specifically routes north.

    Yes I agree there has been a degree of (deliberate?) obfuscation of capacity around HS2 and WCML, due in part to the belief that for example capacity on a WCML Pendolino routed via Milton Keynes to Birmingham and on to Glasgow being directly equivalent to a HS2 train that only serves London and Birmingham. Now if the HS2 trackbed was integrated into the WCML so that Pendolino’s could operate via either route to destinations on the WCML north of Birmingham then things could be different.

    My original point was that much of the pitch for HS2 has of the form: we want to build a high speed line between London and Birmingham now what can we use to justify it, rather than: these are the issues and challenges and this is a solution which will also deliver these benefits.

  • How about a high speed service linking Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Birmingham? With extensions to Glasgow and Edinburgh if Scotland remains in the UK. But… no London.

  • Tony Greaves 2nd May '14 - 5:08pm

    I am delighted to hear that no LD MPs voted against the HS2 Bill at second reading. The problem with trains is that the world is full of people who all have their own cranky opinion.


  • Jonathan Pile 2nd May '14 - 5:16pm

    Thanks for all the interesting comments – just a few points in reply, HS1a would free up capacity on WCML from Birmingham to London because Manchester traffic could go via Leeds on HS1a from phase 2 in 2024 rather than WCML. Secondly – a shocker to some of you – with a £1.5tn national debt – there isn’t a lot of taxpayer (other people’s money) to waste so the idea of a High Speed Rail in every city is cloud cuckoo land. Thirdly – As Roland quite rightly points out the money and mandate on HS2 will probably run out by Birmingham, so that HS1a stands a better chance of delivering High Speed Rail to the North (Leeds & Manchester) and Scotland than half an aborted HS2. Leeds is closer to Sheffield than Birmingham last time I checked on a map (perhaps you can correct me on this) Lastly that COMRES poll demonstrates that 46% of Lib Dem voters oppose HS2 while only 41% are in favour, so I wish the Pro-HS2 Lib Dems would recognise that as HS2 enthusiasts they are at odds with Lib Dem voters and the country as a whole – which is strongly opposed. A recent LDV poll demonstrated that some 79% of LDV members were in favour of HS2 – showing how hooked activists are on this white elephant.

  • I will be dead before anything comes of HS2.

  • Jonathan Pile 3rd May '14 - 7:48pm

    I’ve just received a letter from a senior MP & figure in the Labour Party who says ” I have asked the government to re-open the consultation process in order to fully engage with the wider public. And to make public the alternative route alignments which were modelled but kept back from the public domain.

  • Alex Macfie 3rd May '14 - 10:27pm

    While I think that the primary terminus of HS2 should be in central London, I don’t think we should reject Stratford as an HS1/HS2 interchange based on the way the current private monopoly operator of cross-Channel passenger train services runs its services at the present moment. Just because Eurostar does not currently serve Stratford does not mean that no cross-Channel passenger train service ever will. It might be worth cross-Channel trains serving the UK stations between St Pancras and the Channel Tunnel more frequently if the infrastructure is there to allow them to pick up passengers from high-speed services from the North.

    Of course, what is really needed is to address the principle reason that no international trains serve Stratford “International” station, and why so few of them serve Ebbesfleet and Ashford, namely the unnecessary security theatre around trains between the UK and mainland Europe, and consequent prohibition on such trains from carrying UK domestic passengers.

    Also TGV services between the far north and far south of France avoid central Paris travelling via Marne-la-Vallée. So the idea of direct trains between northern UK cities and the far southeast of England avoiding central London is a sensible one in principle.

  • Alex Macfie 4th May '14 - 11:19am

    Well, I suppose you would not expect a treaty written in the early 1990s to mention a station that was not even conceived until the mid 2000s; however, if we are considering linking between HS2 and cross-Channel train services, we should really be looking at how the link would work best from both ends, rather than considering HS2 in isolation and assuming that the present framework for cross-Channel passenger trains is set in stone. And for train travel between cities north of London and mainland Europe, avoiding London is a common-sensical way of doing it, preferably on through trains, although they would have to be allowed to carry UK domestic passengers for this to work.

    Regarding target journey time: is this really the only thing that matters for travel between the UK and France? It’s great and all to be able to travel between London and Paris in 2¼ hours (excluding check-in time), but I’m sure there are many who would be happy to make the journey in 3 hours. Or even 4½ hours, which would still be far faster than any other method of surface-level travel. However, Eurostar is obsessed with just competing on journey time with airlines (and indeed it operates almost exactly like an airline), and pays little attention to connecting with local rail services in the UK . This seems to be rather (pardon the pun) tunnel-visioned. Most long-distance rail lines have alternating fast and semi-fast services; why should the Channel Tunnel be any different? The CT is running well below maximum capacity so could easily accommodate additional passenger training services. And of course, if international trains that stopped at Stratford, Ebbesfleet and Ashford could carry UK domestic passengers, then the revenue from these passengers would compensate for any statutory penalty incurred by the slower journey time.

  • Jonathan Pile 4th May '14 - 1:50pm

    Just been listening to Huddersfield Labour MP Barry Sheerman demolish HS2 founder Lord Adonis on Radio 4, he thinks Labour will abandon commitment to HS2 in 2015 run up. I’m not so sure, my calculations are that Labour stands to gain 12 Tory seats in the 70 affected constituencies. They are: Phase 1 – Ealing Central & Acton & North Warwickshire, Phase 2 – Tamworth, Nuneaton, Leics NW, Erewash, Broxtowe,Sherwood, Elmet & Rothwell, Stafford, Crewe & Nantwich & Warrington South. I think Labour will then drop HS2 after 2015 but it’s a risk that the Juggernaut might be unstoppable by that stage.

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