Say no to HS2

I suspect a lot of leading Liberal Democrats have been railway buffs from childhood and will be appalled at the suggestion that the HS2 scheme might be scrapped. I am not a railway buff, though I confess to a brief period as an Iain Allen train spotter.

However, way back in 2014 a fellow Liberal Democrat, Quentin Macdonald, moved a resolution at our Yorkshire and Humberside Region annual conference which proposed what seemed to me a very convincing, and much less costly, alternative which he had developed with another railway expert, Colin Elliff. This they called High Speed UK. It had a much higher degree of connectivity with the existing network than HS2, hence being of much greater value to a whole series of northern towns and cities, rather than just Birmingham, and, if the links ever get built, Manchester, Liverpool, Wigan, Sheffield and Leeds and York.

Details of the scheme can be found here.

Christian Woolmar, sometime aspirant Labour candidate for the mayoralty of London, has a highly critical article in the London Review of Books which is well worth a read, even if he is from another party. Find it here.

My own inexpert opinion is that HS2, if it goes ahead, is more likely to suck enterprise out of our region to London, rather than energise the Northern Powerhouse. I hope our policy teams and influential figures will look at these more reasoned arguments for scrapping the scheme, rather than letting boyhood enthusiasms carry them into supporting what I feel is in essence a vanity project.

* Peter Wrigley is a member of Spen Valley Liberal Democrats and blogs as

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  • John Marriott 24th Aug '19 - 11:57am

    YES! Say No to HS2 but Yes to HS3, if that really does mean a new line across the Pennines from Liverpool/Manchester (are you listening, Mr Burnham?) to Leeds/Newcastle.

  • Laurence Cox 24th Aug '19 - 12:30pm

    Absolutely. I have repeatedly said that HS2 should have gone up the east side of the country rather than the west side. The big problem with the WCML is that because of the topography it could not be built in a straight line but had to bend around hills. This was the reason why decades ago British Rail developed the APT, the original tilting train, to reach speeds of 150 mph on the WCML, while the much simpler Intercity 125 could reach almost as high speeds on the Great Western and ECML.

    What we really needed was a high-speed line that reduced the need for domestic flying by connecting Edinburgh, Newcastle, Leeds and Nottingham to London with a connecting link to HS1 so that people in the North could get directly to Europe without having to go via London. This would also connect with the proposed HS3 and could easily be extended to Glasgow.

    The capacity issue on the WCML, which is mainly in the southern section could have been addressed much more cheaply by upgrading the line from London Marylebone to Birmingham Snow Hill.

  • In recent years ‘prestige projects’ have to include the SE/London…I did not realise just how wide was the ‘North/South divide’ until I lived for a while in the East Midlands (before someone tells me that the E. Midlands is not north; to a Bournemouth boy it’s almost within the artic circle).

    The term ‘Northern Powerhouse’ (a coalition gimic, if memory serves) is akin to putting a ‘prancing horse’ on a Reliant Robin; current/planned expenditure on transport infrastructure per head of population is almost 5 times higher in the SE than the North. of England.
    Whatever happened to the Pennine road Tunnel, the electrification of the Leeds/Manchester and Midland rail links, expansion of Manchester Piccadilly station, the modern 122 InterCity Express trains for the Midlands main line, etc.

    I gather HS2 is already forecast to be 50% over budget and rising…Value for money? a milch cow for contractors more like!

  • Paul Barker 24th Aug '19 - 1:33pm

    Britains creaking Rail Network is full, there simply isn’t room for more Trains on the Main Lines. If HS2 had been called Extra Capacity Stage 1 no-one would have even heard of it, The big mistake was giving it a “Sexy” name. The big speed simply comes from the fact that its new, its not really relevant to why its needed.
    Thats not to say that Money doesn’t need spending on the rest of the Network – it does.
    Probably, Westminster isn’t the right place to talk about Infrastructure Projects but we are stuck with it for now & we have to back Infrastructure spending however unpopular it is.

  • Oh dear, more backswood thinking.

  • nigel hunter 24th Aug '19 - 3:01pm

    Infrastructure projects are fine as long as the benefit the WHOLE country. Go ahead with HS3 with branches elsewhere. By being forward thinking development in the north can attract industry there. If Brexit or not goes on the ports where goods come in will need links to the rest of the country for smooth distribution of goods

  • William Fowler 24th Aug '19 - 3:09pm

    The problem with such huge projects is that the govn will want to get the money back through the ticket prices when they are already twice what they should be…

  • Geoffrey Dron 24th Aug '19 - 3:29pm

    @Nigel Sarbutts

    LibDems should present an evidence-based case against to the review.

  • Expats
    Everywhere is north to someone. The East Midlands is exactly where it says it is. That being the east East Midlands. And not the North. Also it’s easier to get to get to London by train from the East Midlands than it is to the West Midlands (Birmingham is my patch at the moment). Contrary to the insistence by some on here Nottingham and Leicester trains go directly to St Pancras and the Leeds train goes directly through Derby. The central link is Leicester not Nottingham. They also all go to East Midlands Airport Parkway, which is in Derbyshire despite the claims of both Nottingham and Leicester . Meanwhile Coventry a mere 23 miles from Leicester is not connected by a direct train, the shortest such distance between Cities without a direct rail link in the country.

  • As far as I can see from the links provided the plans for an alternative to HS2 are simply lines on a map. How about a figure built in for the fact that whatever were to be built would cost a lot more than the first estimates.
    No, the last two times I have travelled to London from Liverpool I was around an hour late. The first time by an hour, the second time by almost an hour. We need better connectivity, not coloured lines on maps.

  • We recently took a 12 day holiday to southern Spain by train. Travelling through France at up to 300kph was all by TGV – and through Spain too. I only saw one train that WASN’T pulled by a TGV engine in the whole trip. Not only fast, but also smoother than a UK commuter train running at 50mph. And the fares were very reasonable too, (we were travelling on Interrail passes, I don’t know the local rates).
    France and Spain (and many other European countries) have invested in new high speed rail lines and trains in the past 30+ years, an opportunity missed in the UK. In Britain, it’s cheaper often cheaper to fly. But far less comfortable, and with far more damage to the environment.
    All we have is HS2 which many not happen and HS3 which is AIUI an aspiration not a funded plan. And nothing for the rest of the network.

  • Nonconformistradical 24th Aug '19 - 6:45pm

    @Nigel Sarbutts
    “last year Network Rail released thousands of weekly freight paths which weren’t being used.”

    Do you know why they weren’t being used? Asking in the interest/possibility of reducing polluting lorry traffic in favour of freight trains…..

  • Richard Underhill 24th Aug '19 - 6:57pm

    Remember the M25? It was started as a series of local by-passes and eventually became a circle all around London. Somebody may have had undisclosed plans and, possibly, costings. Some of the sections were sold as having two lanes, now three everywhere, except where there are four.
    High speed rail is most useful for long distances, so unannounced further extensions should be considered, to, at least, Edinburgh and Glasgow. The 2010-2015 coalition declined to spend on connecting HS1 to HS2, but this seems to be underway now.

  • David Becket 24th Aug '19 - 7:16pm

    HS2 is a project that is more likely to suck business into London, and to go over budget more than once. However our Rail System needs updating, particularly north of Birmingham.
    The problem with HS2 is HS. For most of the UK the reduction in journey time is insignificant compared with the actual journey from origin to destination. It is only London to Scotland that time reduction becomes important. It is the speed that puts up costs, makes it difficult to avoid sensitive locations and, being new technology, causes costs to escalate. It might make sense to drop the speed from London to Birmingham. and use the savings to invest in much needed improvements further north.

  • Nonconformistradical 24th Aug ’19 – 6:45pm:
    Do you know why they weren’t being used? Asking in the interest/possibility of reducing polluting lorry traffic in favour of freight trains…..

    ‘Freight operators give up 4,000 weekly UK slots’ [April 2017]:

    Network Rail, the UK’s rail infrastructure manager, says this huge shake-up of the rail timetable is partly down to an ‘unprecedented’ decline in coal traffic and dips in iron and steel demand.

    But it also attributes the findings to more efficient freight operations, including longer, fuller and heavier trains. It says more ‘savvy’ – or smart – timetabling and better freight industry productivity, with fewer part-loaded trains and therefore less wasted capacity is also driving the changes. It follows an industry-wide review over the past two years into more efficient freight operations.

  • Nonconformistradical 24th Aug '19 - 9:43pm

    Thanks for the useful info

  • Dilettante Eye 24th Aug '19 - 10:12pm

    “The problem with HS2 is HS”

    If this rail project were simply about increased rail capacity, then yes, HS ought not to be an important factor. So why is HS a crucial factor in this project?

    Suppose you wanted to solve the problem of London housing for a London workforce increasingly unable to actually live in London.?

    Here’s an idea.

    Build a high capacity, (and HS) shuttle service with a 40 minute commute time between London Euston and a new dormitory zone around Solihull and Warwick.

    The only reason I can see for this proposed high capacity rail service to have an HS component, is in order to relieve London with an affordable housing overspill, and a very commutable 40 minute HS-Shuttle at the beginning and end of a working day in London?

    What is certain, is that when a London centric establishment offers to throw (£) billions on a project purportedly to help out ‘The North’, you know that you’re not smelling roses, but instead, what the roses are growing in.

  • The reason for HS2 to be HS is that if you’re building a new inter-city express railway line, it makes very little sense in this day and age not to make it HS. Sometimes a spade is just a spade.

  • Andy Hinton
    The links are more important than a couple of shaved minutes here and there. I sometimes wonder if the real appeal of HS2 is that we have a generation of forty to fiftysomethings in power that grew up with “Madchester”, The Smiths and that kind of thing and they want to forge a link between their youth and the centre of power. Manchester is a hip place with lots of media connections and the biggest football teams, which appeals to MPs. But the central link of the country is actually in the Midlands, not the North. It would make more sense to improve links between the South and the North East rather than the North West as there is already a good unifying rail hub in Birmingham linking London to the west of the UK. It could also provide a better service to Scotland via Newcastle.

  • David Wright: “I only saw one train that WASN’T pulled by a TGV engine in the whole trip” this may just reflect the routes you were travelling on, but it may also be because many classic routes in France are severely run down. They’ve got their fast shiny TGV trains, but regional and commuter trains are slow and infrequent compared to those in the UK. I hope that HS2 does not result in cuts to services on the classic lines.
    As for fares, both France and Spain use the compulsory-reservation ticketing model for high-speed trains, where every train has to be booked in advance. And in Spain, the trains are often fully booked. And even if they are not, the system is much less flexible than the UK system where walk-up tickets are valid on any train appropriate to the journey being made. Again, I hope HS2 sticks with the traditional UK ticketing model, rather than adopting TGV-style compulsory reservations and airline-style ticketing.

  • Could this be a post Brexit economic forecast in disguise?

  • The times I have travelled to London from Liverpool in the last few years I have had to go to London to ca6ch the Eurostar. When the money was spent on the tunnel we were promised that we would have trains from Manchester and Liverpool to Paris and Brussels. The trains were bought and eventually sold. This is because of the British obsession about immigration I assume. Last year I went from Paris to Barcelona – one high speed trip. Then the next day from Barcelona to Malaga with high speed train. At Barcelona station I passed through security with my luggage checked. Why cannot I get a train from Liverpool to wherever on the continent the train companies are willing to go to?
    When I have actually wanted to get near London I went via Reading. I had to change at Birmingham because the direct trains were stopped some years ago because, we were told, of the congestion at New Street.

  • John Whitehouse 25th Aug '19 - 10:21am

    I agree with David Beckett that the biggest problem with HS2 is the HS. People saying it’s all about capacity forget that the original HS2 business case was all based on SPEED – shaving minutes off business travel. It was only when this case was debunked that capacity came to the fore. However, much of the damage in terms of route choices (ploughing through ancient woodlands and other sensitive areas) had been done by then. HS2 will not be “green” – energy required increases by the square of the speed travelled.

    Much as I’d love to see the whole project scrapped, I don’t believe that the current government review is more than window dressing. However, if the operating speeds could be limited to say 300kph rather than the 360kph (rising to 400kph) currently planned, it would use far less energy and create far less noise blight along its route.

  • Although I believe HS2 should be built, I do have a deal of scepticism about the spiralling costs so far into the project. Some have suggested saving a significant amount by running HS2 to Old Oak Common and not Euston, or slightly reducing the top speed of the line and not being the fastest railway in Europe. Both are for me ok.
    One concern I have is the ability of these projects to rack up unnecessary costs in developing new ways of doing x, y or z, just because HS2 is new. The best example of this is the Great Western electrification (the great getting lesser as time progresses), as I understand it contractors were given a free hand to design the overhead electrical systems rather than use tried and tested existing technology, this has resulted in the staggering amount of gantry steelwork along the entire route, compared to any other similar system here or across Europe (just look at it!), causing a major cost overrun. Possibly leading to the cancellation of the Swansea/Valleys/Bath and Midland electrification schemes.
    How much the idiot Grayling had to do with this I don’t know. Both him, his department and Network Rail have a lot of questions to answer.

  • Nigel Quinton 25th Aug '19 - 12:52pm

    It is hard to argue with those that quite correctly point out how far behind the rest of the world our infrastructure is, and there must be a case for high speed rail to be expanded in the UK. But the costs of HS2, and its London-centric approach demand a better response.

    The HSUK case looked pretty sound to me and well researched. The transport select committee (I think it was) gave it short shrift though I never understood why. Possibly because it was promoted by rail industry experts rather than politicians such as Adonis et al.

    I think as a party we ought to have an open mind on alternative models for upgrading our infrastructure, and we definitely ought to be prioritising cross Pennine links and improving the London to Edinburgh journey time. We have to reduce internal flights as a response to the climate emergency.

  • Antony Watts 25th Aug '19 - 11:42pm

    Continental High Speed lines are a glue that holds the social cohesion of the Eu together. The issue is that the isolated UK does not get it. We cannot see the advantage of a line that starts in, sya we say, Inverness and goes to Barcelona and further.

    Such short sightedness. We need a complete change in attitude.

  • One of the reasons that HS2 is needed (but north of Birmingham) is the capacity issue. I often stand on the station at Manchester Oxford Road as two freight trains pass the platform in opposite directions. They take almost 5 minutes to pass (I’ve timed them). When you are trying to schedule traffic at that speed as well as 90mph and 140mph trains there are compromises. Tunisia has longer HS rail track than we have and, in France, during planning for the TGV towns were demonstrating because the TGV route WASN’T coming to them.
    HS works best if you have frequent services with fewer stops but good ‘standard’ services feeding HS between the stops.
    The M25 went wrong because it has too many exits. It was designed for long distance traffic to connect the major routes into London so that you could come down the A1 and go to, say, the M2 or M4 without going into London. It wasn’t supposed to be used to commute between two towns. If the M25 had all the entrances but only the major routes as exits it could most likely have been only 2 lanes (and possibly 3 between the M3 and M4). I’ve frequently seen cars join the motorway, barge across 4 lanes of traffic and then leave at the next junction. Research has shown that the shuttle of brake lights results in stationary traffic several miles back. There’s a good argument for splitting the four lanes into a pair of twos (one local the other long distance) but the poor lane discipline and lack of awareness of many of the drivers on today’s roads would result in a nightmare. The North Yorkshire section of the A1 near me is now three lanes – most of the time only the two inner lanes are in use. My driving instructor 40 years ago said, if the vehicle in front is 4 seconds away from you you’re not overtaking you’re lane hogging. I often come across drivers doing just under 70 in lane 3 with nothing in lanes 1 and 2.

  • Nonconformistradical 26th Aug '19 - 6:59am

    “It wasn’t supposed to be used to commute between two towns. If the M25 had all the entrances but only the major routes as exits….. ”

    “I’ve frequently seen cars join the motorway, barge across 4 lanes of traffic and then leave at the next junction.”

    Yes – the M25 appears to have aided people in car-commuting longer distances.

    “Research has shown that the shuttle of brake lights results in stationary traffic several miles back”
    On the rare occasions I use the M25 I must be managing to miss these episodes – but I perceive the use of variable speed limits has done much to smooth out the traffic flow.

  • If built, HS2 won’t be the first ‘high speed’ line to serve the North and Midlands…

    ‘Great Central Main Line’:

    The GCML was the last main line railway to be built in Britain during the Victorian period. Built by the railway entrepreneur Edward Watkin with the aim to run a fast north-south line, it was designed to a specification which permitted trains to run at higher speeds; Watkin believed that it would be possible to run direct rail services between Britain and France and had presided over an unsuccessful project for a tunnel under the English Channel in the 1880s. The GCML operated as a fast trunk route from the North and the East Midlands to London. Initially not a financial success, it recovered under the leadership of Sam Fay. Although initially planned for long-distance passenger services, in practice the line’s most important function became to carry goods traffic, notably coal.

    In the 1960s, the line was considered by Dr Beeching as an unnecessary duplication of other lines that served the same places, especially the Midland Main Line and to a lesser extent the West Coast Main Line. Most of the route was closed between 1966 and 1969 under the Beeching axe.

  • Andy Hyde: “One concern I have is the ability of these projects to rack up unnecessary costs in developing new ways of doing x, y or z, just because HS2 is new.”

    Hopefully you’ll have also seen my comments in the GWML article by Paul but I just want to quickly respond to this point you’ve raised.

    HS2 is not new, it’s building on HS1 (which thousands of people use every day) as well as technology that is in use today in numerous other countries in Europe and around the world. I don’t doubt these projects run up extra costs but that’s typically due to numerous other factors ranging from rising land values to the cost of concrete and everything in between.

  • Alex Macfie 27th Aug '19 - 9:28am

    “Why cannot I get a train from Liverpool to wherever on the continent the train companies are willing to go to?”

    The principal reason is that, like the trains from London to mainland Europe, they would be forced to run sealed through UK territory. and yes, this is “the British obsession about immigration”. But if trains from the UK provinces to the mainland Europe cannot also carry UK domestic passengers, then they are extremely unlikely to be viable.

  • @ David Blake …….and Scotland….

    All those who go on about the so called Scottish deficit should Scotland join the EU again as an independent country after Brexit should count up the money spent on Crossrail and HS2.

  • Sarah Noble 27th Aug '19 - 4:39pm

    It’s not surprising to see uninformed positions on HS2, but it is disheartening.

    HS2, for its faults, is the only feasible way to get the rail network the capacity it needs by the time it opens. If we were having this discussion twenty years ago, HSUK might be in with a shot, but any rival proposal would have to go through a very lengthy Hybrid Bill process, putting off opening of the northern sections towards 2040.

    On the issue of the GCML: it wasn’t high-speed at all. Linespeeds tended to max out at 100mph, which is fast, but not as fast as any of the main lines radiating out of London. Furthermore, the fact that the Metropolitan line shares tracks with the GCML and Marylebone is a Grade I-listed station that’s hemmed in by surrounding buildings and has relatively poor tube connectivity for a London terminal isn’t going to be that helpful.

    If we were to cancel HS2 now, the only thing that would happen is that public spending would contract by £56bn over the next fifteen years. The money won’t be “spent on the North”, it’ll just not be spent at all. It’ll lead us down to a path in five years where even off-peak services on the WCML become standing-only, and I wouldn’t want to be the civil servant who goes into the Trent Valley to tell them another decade of painful upgrades are needed to their commute and will probably be needed again twenty years in the future.

  • @Tom Harney “The times I have travelled to London from Liverpool in the last few years I have had to go to London to ca6ch the Eurostar. When the money was spent on the tunnel we were promised that we would have trains from Manchester and Liverpool to Paris and Brussels. The trains were bought and eventually sold. This is because of the British obsession about immigration I assume. ”

    There were also sleeper services (Night-Star) planned to cities in the North of England and Scotland.

    The reason no services ran north of London is not down to immigration, but down to economics.

    Low cost airlines came along and blew the business case out of the water. Who* would pay £200 to train from Glasgow to Nice when you could fly for £35?

    *-this was in 1997 or so. Nowadays … perhaps attitudes are different. But the stock was sold off. Some to the ECML.

  • Alex Macfie 27th Aug '19 - 5:32pm

    @TCO: Trains between places north or west of London and mainland Europe would almost certainly have been viable if they had been allowed to carry domestic passengers in the EU. A train service is unlike a flight in that it picks up and sets down passengers en route, allowing every segment of the train journey to collect revenue. To take a simple example, an airline has no choice but to run separate flights from London to Newcastle, and London to Edinburgh, because of high cost of take-off and landing relative to the rest of the journey. However, a train from London to Edinburgh can stop en route at Newcastle, and practically all of those between those two places on the East Coast route do so.
    However, the insistence that cross-Channel trains run sealed in the UK means that they cannot benefit from domestic UK passengers, so would have to run half-empty to/from somewhere like Liverpool, beause they would not be able to get a share of the London-Liverpool passengers, and the revenue they provide. And this IS principally about immigration.
    And London to mainland Europe by train is competitive with low-cost airlines (and has the advantage of serving the actual named destinations, not some airfield in the middle of nowhere). There is no reason direct trains between the provinces and mainland Europe would not also be competitive.

  • Alex Macfie 28th Aug '19 - 7:12am

    My first sentence should read “Trains between places north or west of London and mainland Europe would almost certainly have been viable if they had been allowed to carry domestic passengers in the UK”! Really there needs to be a function for editing posts here

  • Michael Hall 16th Sep '19 - 9:18am

    Where is the “rigorous ongoing scrutiny of costs” that was promised in the 2016 Autumn Conference Motion on Future Transport, that was broadly supportive of HS2 on that condition? The cost seems to be spiralling out of control and a decision needs to be made on what to do about it. Our party should have a policy position on this. Today’s debate on Tackling the Climate Change Crisis, is on a motion that does not mention HS2 but it is mentioned in the policy document referred to, hidden away on page 65. This should not be taken to be a change in our party’s policy on HS2 which is not one of blind uncritical support. The motion is not about HS2 and if HS2 was being mentioned this should have been highlighted in the index or summary somewhere.

  • Sharon Henry 1st Nov '19 - 12:08pm

    I voted for the Liberal Democrats at the last European Election Vote, but I am now 65 years old and have always voted for the Tories. In the forthcoming general election I am considering voting for the Liberal Democrats but I am totally against the creation of the southern section of HS2 which will run from London to Birmingham. The cost is outrageous and the benefits minimal and non-existent for railway users needed mid-way stops. We already have quite good train services running along that route anyway.

    What is the Liberal Democrats policy on the construction of the southern section of HS2? I am happy with many of your other proposed policies but this is a major decider for me. I am not looking for empty promises. I am looking for a party which will not break down over contentious issues and which will genuinely introduce and implement effective policies, legislation and actions to promote the well-being of our country, particularly on social and environmental issues, whilst also promoting our economy and encouraging responsible entrepreneurial activity and harmonious international trade.

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