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High Speed 2: The UK’s £100 Billion Rail Project

Following hot on the heels of the seemingly endless Brexit squabbling comes another British project lathered in controversy. Right at the beginning of our Megaproject series, we did a video on London’s new Crossrail underground line. A project big on ambition and grandeur, but mired in development issues – and one that is still not finished. But if you thought that was the biggest rail venture going on in the Uk, then think again – this is High Speed 2. 

The name High Speed 2 feels like it has already been around forever, but actually construction has only just begun. The high-speed rail service will initially link London and Birmingham, before separating and continuing north to Manchester and Leeds (the Manchester branch will also have an off-shoot terminating near Wigan). The first phase is due to be completed between 2028 and 2030, while the northern sections are scheduled to open between 2035 and 2040 – so we’re going to be talking about High Speed 2 for some time to come. 

UK High Speed 2 rail map
UK High Speed 2 rail map by Cnbrb is licensed under CC-BY-SA

This is a truly monumental project that has already seen its estimated cost balloon to stratospheric levels and one that has courted significant controversy up and down the country. This could well be the UK’s defining megaproject of 21st Century 

High-Speed Railways

In comparison with some other countries around the world, Britain is far behind in terms of high-speed rail travel. The most famous of course is the Japanese Shinkansen trains now capable of travelling at speeds of up 360 km/h (223 mph). In Europe, France, Italy, Spain and Germany all use a high-speed network that has been in place for some time. 

In Britain, high-speed rail travel has had a difficult journey. Traditionally one of the leaders in terms of rail innovation, the country has slipped noticeably down the pecking order over the last fifty years. During the 1970s the Advanced Passenger Train was trialled in the UK, capable of speeds of up to 249 km/h (155 mph), however, it ran into financial problems that were compounded by the negative media coverage focusing on the train’s design faults and it was finally scrapped in 1987.

Instead, the UK built and extended motorways around the country. In 1960, the total length of motorways in Britain was 95 miles, as of 2019, that figure had reached 2,320 miles. The average vehicle flow across the two periods also increased by nearly 9 times. The UK became much more of a car nation, and sadly rail services began falling behind. 

High Speed 1 

If you were already wondering about High Speed 1, then here we are. The first high-speed line in the UK opened fully in 2007 and runs for 108 km (67 miles) between London and the Channel Tunnel, which in case you missed it is a rail tunnel that passes below the English Channel, connecting the UK with France. At a cost of £5.8 billion it certainly didn’t come cheap, but pales in comparison to the astronomical figures we will be coming to shortly. 

This was an important line because it finally put the British section on a par with their Gallic cousins. Before this, trains had travelled from Paris to the Channel Tunnel at speeds of up to 300 km/h (186 mph) but coming out of the tunnel in the UK, trains could only travel at a maximum speed of 160 km/h (100 mph). For a nation who invented rail travel, this must have been particularly galling. 

High Speed 2 Proposal 

It was only two years after the full opening of High Speed 1, that murmurs of another, longer high-speed rail line began to emerge. Initially, the proposal came from the Labour party then in power but was supported by the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition which came to power in 2010. 

The initial Y shaped design (which I mentioned at the start of the video) hasn’t changed much but the design has undergone slight alterations to mitigate the ecological impact. The government hopes that High Speed 2 will increase capacity on British railways, weaning the country from air and road to rail. It is hoped that by adding high-speed connections between the major cities, it would free up space on other lines which could then operate slower local routes and freight services.

Then there was the argument that we seem to be forever dancing around in the UK – the north/south divide. London is not only the largest city in the UK by far, but has also attracted significantly more investment than anywhere else. Everything from average income, life expectancy, house prices and unemployment has traditionally been skewed along this divide. 

The Prime Minister Boris Johnson
The Prime Minister Boris Johnson by
Ben Shread is licensed under OGL

Those in the north have felt left behind for decades now and it’s difficult to argue with that sentiment. A new high-speed rail line connecting the north and south was seen as the start of a “levelling up” process within the country – to borrow a phrase for Prime Minister Boris Johnson – which hopefully would see rising investment away from the bright lights of London.   

In 2010, the estimated cost for the entire project was between £30.9 billion and £36 billion, but things were still a long way from getting started.  

Opposition

Between 2010 and 2019, the UK went through a truly tumultuous period. The referendum on leaving the European Union spilt over into bickering, protests and at times open contempt. It was not a particularly pleasant time for the country and one in which the debate over High Speed 2 also exploded. 

The opposition to High Speed 2 has been fierce, with much it centring around the environmental impact the line will have. The Woodland Trust, the UK’s largest woodland conservation group, has stated that 108 ancient woodlands will be affected by the railways with a whole catalogue of rare animals set to lose their habitat. 

Others argue it’s simply a waste of money and that the UK doesn’t need a high-speed rail network. With the NHS often struggling badly for funding, it’s not hard to find other causes that could benefit from the money (and not to get too far ahead of myself, but that estimated cost that I just gave you – that’s already gone up considerably). 

It’s a project that has divided many in politics also, although the three largest political parties, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats now support it. The Green Party, Brexit Party and the UK Independence Party oppose the project, but hold so little power in parliament they haven’t managed to provide much political opposition. 

Then there is the awkward question CO2 emissions. You would think that by installing high-speed railways we would be reducing our CO2 emissions, but it’s not quite as straightforward as that. A government white paper published in 2007 stated that, 

trains that travel at a speed of 350 kilometres per hour (220 mph) used 90% more energy than at 200 kilometres per hour (125 mph); which would result in carbon emissions for a London to Edinburgh journey of approximately 14 kilograms (31 lb) per passenger for high-speed rail compared to 7 kilograms (15 lb) per passenger for conventional rail; air travel emits 26 kilograms (57 lb) per passenger for the same journey.

So, it’s certainly better than an aircraft but perhaps not quite a green as you would imagine. However, the paper also added that a switch to carbon-free or carbon-neutral energy production would make a huge difference. In 2010, the government said the project would be, and I quote, “roughly carbon neutral” – which is about as non-committal as you can possibly get. 

A statement by High Speed 2 has said that the construction of phase 1 will lead to roughly 5.8 – 6.2 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, but after which it will be carbon neutral and by 2030, emissions are estimated to be 8 grams for high-speed rail, 22 grams for conventional intercity rail, 67 grams for private car transport, and 170 grams for domestic aviation per passenger.  

Oakervee Review

All of this opposition built up steadily over the years, so much so that the government ordered a full review of the project in 2019. At the time, preparation work for phase 1 had already begun and continued through the inquiry. 

Though the review was completed by the end of 2019, the findings were delayed because of the general election in December. In February 2020, the Oakervee Review was finally published, concluding that High Speed 2 should go ahead with certain alterations, much of it relating to the spiralling costs. 

High Speed 2 had its final go-ahead. 

The Lines  

As I mentioned right at the start of the video, High Speed 2 will take a Y shape form, reaching from London to the North of England. To make matters slightly more complicated, high-speed trains will also begin operating on routes that are not technically High Speed 2 but have been modified.  

Phase 1   

The first line to be constructed will be the section from London to Birmingham, which will include four stations; London Euston, Old Oak Common (an interchange just outside London), Birmingham Curzon Street and Birmingham Interchange (outside the city). The route will be in the region of 160 km (100 miles) and is expected to take 45 minutes (the current journey takes at least 1 hour 22 minutes). 

Coming out of London, the train will travel through two tunnels before reaching the M25, the ringed motorway which wraps around London; one 13 km (8 miles) and the other 15.8 km (9.8 miles). Outside of the M25 it will continue north and include a ‘green tunnel’ – a cut and cover tunnel where a shallow ditch is dug then covered back over with natural elements – in theory making it more aesthetically pleasing. 

The new Birmingham Interchange Station will be situated near the small town of Solihull, around 14.4 km (9 miles) south-east of Birmingham and it’s here that phase 1 will make it’s second scheduled stop before continuing into Britain’s second-largest city. But that’s not quite it for Phase 1. The line is due to terminate near Lichfield, north of Birmingham, where it will eventually merge into Phase 2. 

Phase 2 

Graphical model showing new HS2 platforms (blue) joined to the existing Leeds station platforms (pink) by Department for Transport, UK is
licensed under OGL

Phase 2 is a little more complex, but can be broken into Phase 2a and Phase 2b – but even then it’s not so simple. The phases denote the construction process rather than the actual lines, so the western line from Birmingham starts with a section of Phase 2a then morphs into Phase 2b.  

Phase 2a will connect Lichfield and Crewe, which will act as the gateway to both Manchester and Liverpool (Liverpool has not been included on the High Speed 2 lines but will be connected to it by an existing freight line and will service high-speed trains). Crewe is set to see a major upgrade to its existing main station and will also include a tunnel beneath it allowing trains not stopping in Crewe to go under it without needing to reduce speed.

From Crewe, Phase 2b will travel north and break into a Y shape, with the western section terminating near Wigan and the eastern continuing to Manchester Airport then Manchester itself through a newly constructed 16 km ( 10-mile) tunnel. 

The second section of Phase 2b will begin just east of Birmingham at Coleshill. From there it continues northeast to a newly built station called the East Midlands Hub, near Derby. At this point, the High Speed 2 line will continue north to Leeds, while a Midland Mainline will run roughly parallel to it from the East Midlands Hub up to Sheffield. Once again, this is not an official section of High Speed 2 but will use high-speed trains. 

Changes Afoot  

Needless to say, the most significant change that passengers will experience will be travel times. A journey from London to Manchester will be reduced from 2 hours 7 minutes to 1 hour 40 minutes, and if you want to go even longer, London to Edinburgh will take 3 hours 48 minutes, rather than 4 hours 22 minutes. I’ve used two examples from London, but the entire country will see reduced times between connecting cities.   

The number of people using the train services is also anticipated to grow quickly. High Speed 2 is expected to carry 26,000 people every hour and 86 million passengers annually. London Euston is going to see a massive increase in both passengers and trains, with an estimated 15 trains either arriving or departing the London station every hour. During peak hours, Euston will see its commuter capacity more than treble after the introduction of High Speed 2. 

Speaking of Euston – and changing topic slightly – work around the busy London station has already included the removal of 40,000 skeletons from St James’s Church graveyard nearby. One of which was found to be the long-lost remains of Mathew Flinders, who led the first inshore circumnavigation of Australia. His remains are now going to be re-buried in his hometown of Donington in Lincolnshire. The site of the expanded Birmingham Curzon Station has also unearthed some 6,500 skeletons from a nearby burial site as well as the remnants of the world’s oldest roundhouse – a large turntable that was used to turn locomotives around – dating from 1837.     

Trains

The situation with the trains, or rolling stock as they say in the railway industry, is also a complicated matter. The bidding process began in 2017 and it was expected to have been awarded last year, but that has now been pushed back the first quarter of 2021. 

But what do we know about the trains that will operate on High Speed 2? It’s thought that the first batch purchased will number at least 54 individual trains with a maximum speed of at least 360 km/h (225 mph) and measuring roughly 200 metres (660 ft). 

It’s also hoped that the trains will be able to operate on both the new high-speed lines, but also on most existing routes. However, this comes with a bit of a dilemma. Almost all high-speed trains built in Europe operate on a larger structure gauge than in the UK – meaning the minimum height and width of tunnels and bridges are different, making the trains larger than what is normally seen in the UK. Purchasing custom-built trains to fit the UK network will likely cost nearly 50% more than the “off the shelf” options. One estimate states a specially designed train would cost £40 million, rather than £27 million to buy something similar to what is used across Europe.  

So it seems that either the UK will have to stump significantly more money to purchase trains that can be used all over the UK or go for cheaper options that would be constricted to High Speed 2 lines and other routes that have been modified.    

Cost

OK, now we come to the massive white elephant sitting in the corner of the room. The cost of High Speed 2 has exploded since 2010, when, if you remember, the estimate was between £30.9 billion and £36 billion. Well, in just ten years – 3,650 days – that figure has more than tripled. Officially, it currently stands at £98 billion, although some involved with the Oakervee Review contend that it could be much higher, perhaps as much as £170 billion. 

This staggering increase has been attributed to several factors; inflation, population density, cost of land and the fact that High Speed 2 needs to travel into city centres. And if we’ve learnt anything from the elusive Crossrail Project, building new train lines through London is a costly nightmare. 

At the same time, we do need to take into consideration the benefit-cost ratio. Yes, this is going to be a very costly endeavour to construct, but it is expected to produce net benefits and additional revenue. The net benefits can be a little vague but are likely to include the economic stimulation for towns and cities along the line as well as an increased freight capacity which should, in theory, lower costs. A few years ago, the estimated benefit-cost ratio was 2.30 (meaning £2.30 of benefits for every £1 spent) – however, this figure is now believed to have fallen to around 1.50. Not quite as attractive, but if correct would still be beneficial in the long run.     

Then there’s the cost of operation. The estimated running costs of High Speed 2 are £3.90 per 1,000 metres (3,280ft) for 200-metre trains and £5.00 for 260m trains. In comparison, the existing network costs £2.00 per 1,000 metres (3,280ft) for 200-metre trains and £2.60 for the longer trains. 

Let Work Commence

After all the waiting, scrutinising and protesting, it seems that High Speed 2 is finally going ahead. That’s not to say that the debate over it has calmed – far from it in fact – but the government appears increasingly committed to the project and as work begins, it’s difficult to see a last-minute change of mind.  

This will be one of the largest, most significant infrastructure projects the UK has seen in living memory. Considering the nation will need to contend with the fall out from the covid-19 pandemic, a brand new recession and the messy divorce from Europe, it certainly hasn’t come at the best time – but then again, is there ever a right time for something like this?

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