High-speed rail: What exactly are the plans for HS2 and HS3?
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, is about to announce his new Integrated Rail Plan for Great Britain. Leaks from government reveal that plans for new high-speed lines, HS2 and HS3, stop well short of previously promised ambitions.
These are the key questions and answers.
Define ‘high-speed rail’?
UIC, the global railway organisation, says the era was born on 1 October 1964 when the Bullet Train started running in Japan between Tokyo and Osaka. Its original running speed was 130mph (210km/h).
In the 1970s, the UK was ahead of Europe with High Speed Trains running on the Great Western line linking London Paddington with Bristol and Cardiff – which established 125mph as the benchmark for Inter-City rail in the UK. Although the ill-fated Advanced Passenger Train and the Pendolino trains on the West Coast main line are capable of 140mph, there has never been enough capacity to allow them to run at full speed.
France made the next giant leap on 27 September 1981, when the Train à Grand Vitesse started running at a maximum speed of 162mph (260 km/h). This has since increased, with 186mph (300km/h) now common on high speed railways across Europe.
“High speed rail” is now generally regarded as speeds at or above 140mph (225km/h) on dedicated tracks.
How is Britain doing?
The only line that qualifies by the modern definition is High Speed 1, linking London St Pancras with Kent and the Channel Tunnel.
But in 2009 the last Labour government specified High Speed 2 (HS2) to connect the capital with the Midlands and north of England. The project had all-party support, with the incoming Conservative transport secretary, Justine Greening, saying: “If this country is to out-compete, out-produce and out-innovate the rest of the world then we cannot afford not to go ahead with HS2.
“Put simply, we must invest in our transport network, not in spite of the economic challenges we face, but as a means to overcome them and to secure our country’s economic future.”
Since then the cost of the project has more than doubled and is now approaching £100bn.
Where will HS2 go?
Its first stage is from London Euston to Birmingham. The twin-track line follows a more southerly trajectory than the existing West Coast main line and Chilterns line, cutting through rural countryside to the Midlands, where it splits.
The western leg (HS2W) runs to Crewe and Manchester, while the eastern leg (HS2E) continues to Nottingham, Sheffield and Leeds – relieving pressure on the Midland main line and the East Coast main line.
The Y-shaped network will allow high-speed trains to run on conventional lines onwards to Preston, Carlisle, Edinburgh and Glasgow from the western leg, and to York and Newcastle on the eastern leg. In total 345 miles of new high-speed track is planned for HS2.
How much faster?
HS2 is planned for running at 225mph (362km/h), with the following schedule planned (current times also shown):
London-Manchester: 67 minutes (125 minutes), saving 46 per cent on current journey times.
London-Leeds: 81 minutes (133 minutes), saving 39 per cent.
Birmingham-Manchester: 40 minutes (87 minutes), saving 54 per cent.
Birmingham-Leeds: 46 minutes (117 minutes), saving 61 per cent.
What about HS3?
This is the proposed high-speed link across the Pennines between Manchester and Leeds – known fairly interchangeably as HS3 and Northern Powerhouse Rail.
The core line and additional projects would vastly increase capacity and speed on the trans-Pennine links from the Mersey to the Humber and the Tyne, with Bradford and Sheffield also benefitting.
Journey times as short as 20 minutes have been floated between the two biggest cities in northern England, compared with the current fastest trip of 50 minutes.
In July 2019, Boris Johnson pledged: “I want to be the prime minister who does, with Northern Powerhouse Rail, what we did for Crossrail in London.”
This is a reference to the £19bn rail link across the capital that connects Reading and Heathrow with south Essex and southeast London, though not at high speed. It is currently running four years late and well over budget.
“Today I am going to deliver on my commitment to that vision with a pledge to fund the Leeds to Manchester route,” Mr Johnson continued.
“It’s going to be up to local people to decide what comes next. As far as I’m concerned that’s just the beginning to our commitments and our investments. We want to see this whole thing done.
“I’ve asked officials to accelerate their work on these plans so that we are ready to do a deal in the autumn.
“Feel free to applaud.”
So that’s all clear, then. When can I step aboard?
The first passenger HS2 trains may run between London and Birmingham in the late 2020s – though probably from a suburban station in west London, Old Oak Common, as the intended hub, Euston, will not be ready. The links to Crewe and Manchester will follow in the 2030s.
That is the line ministers have fed to friendly newspapers. The Sunday Times headlined its story: “Red wall commuters to get rail revolution – high-speed lines and upgrades will cut journey times between cities in the Midlands and the north in ‘levelling up’.”
Compared with doing nothing, that is certainly the case. The trouble is: what the government now plans is well short of what was originally promised.
While HS2W will be completed, HS2E will be downgraded with a link from Birmingham to East Midlands Parkway station – where it will meet the Midland main line, and another spur from Leeds south to a point in South Yorkshire where it will link with existing lines to Sheffield.
The spin is that what ministers are planning is “delivering the same ambition for better value for money for the British taxpayer”.
Do rail experts agree?
No. Nigel Harris, editor of Rail magazine and the foremost commentator on the railway industry, told The Independent: “If you don’t do HS2E there’s almost no point in doing HS2W if all it is to be is a bypass for the West Coast main line.
“The biggest benefits will have been sacrificed in the name of political spinelessness and chronic Treasury short termism: knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing.”
Lilian Greenwood, the Labour MP who is the former chair of the Transport Select Committee, said: “If ‘HS2 trains will instead be directed on to existing track for much of the journey to Yorkshire’, then surely instead of adding loads of new capacity, it will make things worse rather than better?”
Surely speed isn’t everything?
Correct. The aim of HS2 is to relieve the capacity crunch on the Victorian rail network, by moving inter-city services off the creaking 19th-century infrastructure. Speed is just a welcome by-product. Removing passenger expresses will dramatically increase options for local and regional trains, as well as freight – with people and goods coaxed from road to rail.
Almost halving the journey time between London and Birmingham to 45 minutes is a bonus; a completely new line in a highly congested nation might as well be designed to operate at 225mph to match the best in Continental Europe.