To paraphrase a great playwright, "2b, or not 2b? That is the question." And the answer? Not 2b, it seems.
Boris Johnson has this morning confirmed via the Yorkshire Post that HS2 Phase 2b's Eastern leg between Birmingham and Leeds is to be scrapped as part of a new Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) for the North of England. This is a huge decision, and one which has already received open criticism from regional news outlets, but has been hinted at for months by various government sources; one update from the Department for Transport (DfT) in October 2020 barely mentions the Eastern leg, focusing entirely on Phase 2a and the Western leg of Phase 2b. Whilst the project has been fraught with difficulties and complications from the off, cancelling the northern elements of the route at this stage in the game is a controversial and illogical decision.
What is HS2?
First proposed in 2010 as a sequel to the successful HS1 Channel Tunnel link between Folkestone and Calais, High Speed 2 was initially proposed as an alternative North-South rail artery between London and Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and beyond. Phase 1, due to be completed in around 2030, will link London to Birmingham, with Phase 2a continuing the line up to Crewe, and 2b providing high-speed services to Manchester (Eastern leg) and Leeds (Western leg).
HS2's main selling point was that it could provide a dedicated high-speed, high-frequency rail service between some of the UK's largest cities, which in turn would provide relief to several pre-existing mainline rail routes - the East Coast Main Line, the West Coast Main Line, and the Midland Main Line.
It's worth focusing on that last bit. Whilst HS2 could hypothetically provide quicker journey times from London heading north (as is discussed further below), the main focus has always been to provide additional intercity rail capacity. Railways can operate at a higher capacity and higher efficiency when the service being operated is homogeneous; by running solely high-speed, long-distance services along the new HS2 line, this would in turn reduce the requirement for such services on existing infrastructure, which in turn would allow for more slow services - often referred to as 'stoppers' - to be run. John Preston's 2018 paper for the Government Office for Science touches on this, citing similar benefits for HS2 as a whole.
What are the impacts of cancelling parts of Phase 2b?
There's a lot to unpack here. Let's start with one of the fundamental issues with HS2 that has continuously cast a shadow over the ambitious project. The original budget for HS2 was estimated as being around £32 million, yet recent estimates put the potential spend at nearly four times that amount. This is due to various factors, including poor ground conditions, delays caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, and optimistic timescales being used in initial calculations. A large proportion of this money will have already been invested into safeguarding large areas of land, as well as funding the initial design stages of the project. Money has already been spent on Phase 2, with 2012 estimates putting the cost of designing the 'Y' network (both legs of Phase 2b) at over £1.2bn; cancelling the Western leg at this point will not reduce the costs of the project as much as you might think. Intriguingly, however, one Whitehall source suggested earlier this year that this cancellation could save up to £40bn.
In fact, the Public Accounts Committee noted in September 2021 that they were "increasingly alarmed" by the financial impact of the lack of progress in Phase 1, which is currently under construction; in turn, this has caused expensive delays to the project.
It's not just about the money that's been sunk into the project, however. The initial Benefit - Cost Ratio (BCR) was stated as being as high as 2.5 in 2010 documentation, with the DfT's Value for Money Statement (VfMS) from 2012 showing the BCR decreasing to as low as 1.4 for Phase 1 alone. More recent independent evaluations have suggested that the true BCR could be lower than 1. Yes, you read that correctly - the overall cost of HS2 may outweigh the benefits that the completed railway will bring. This scenario is even more likely now that the Leeds branch has been truncated - in the VfMS from 2012, the combined BCR for Phase 2 was estimated to be 1.6 to 1.9, thus suggesting Phase 2 is the more likely of the two Phases to return substantial benefits and revenue.
Let's not forget about the local economy growth that HS2 is expected to bring, either. As recently as September 2021, an article written by HS2 Chairman Allan Cook surmised that the Leeds growth strategy born as a result of HS2 would pump over £50bn into the regional economy. In reality, the city of Leeds was never going to suddenly be £50bn richer overnight, but the potential for an increase in commerce and economic growth in the West Yorkshire Combined Authority as a result of more robust long-distance rail connections has been dampened severely by the changes to Phase 2b. When discussing the subject in 2015, one peer in the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee used London's Jubilee Line as an (albeit smaller-scale) example of the boost that a new and reliable rail service can bring to a given conurbation.
2. Fast and Frequent
The new high-speed line would have brought journey times between the Midlands and West Yorkshire down from 118 minutes to 49, and from West Yorkshire to London down from 131 minutes to just 81. This is due to the entire HS2 network being designed to accommodate line speeds of up to 360km/h, with most sections allowing for routine operation at around 330km/h.
The hourly frequency of London-bound services from Leeds would have increased from 2 to 5, with the number of off-peak services from Birmingham to Leeds doubling from 2 to 4 [source]. Not just this,
This morning, I was lucky enough to board one of thirty-six London-bound services to depart from Richmond during the morning peak. Intercity commuters across the UK have been dealt a major blow by the cutbacks to HS2 Phase 2b, with the prospect of a 38% decrease in journey times between the capital and West Yorkshire no longer on the table. Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) is also potentially facing cutbacks - Jon Stone's article in The Independent on the topic is worth a read. Save for developments in Manchester - including the construction of the Ordsall Chord - few new rail infrastructure projects on a regional scale have been undertaken outside of South-East England in recent years: HS1, Crossrail, East West Rail and arguably HS2 are all London-centric developments.
When Phase 1 was initially approved in 2017, I was skeptical. Would this money not be better used as an investment into existing railways, rather than constructing a new one?
The UK rail network is the oldest in the world, with the first line opening nearly 200 years ago between Stockton and Darlington. A lot of the network's infrastructure is aging, and is constantly in need of repair or replacement (hence why your local station seems to always be closed at weekends due to engineering works). Our railways were never designed for the frequency or speed of services that we run today, meaning train operators are perpetually searching for ways to eke out extra capacity from lines that are already running at max capacity.
Recent changes in climate, demand and technology have all left our current railway network looking outdated. New technologies currently being implemented along Phase 1 - such as ETCS signalling, precast sleepers and tunnel sections, and automatic train driving systems - will bring HS2 up to speed (literally) with respect to other nations with leading high speed rail networks such as France and China.
Investing the same money in current infrastructure would only get you so far. Engineering work on existing infrastructure requires blockades that substantially impact regular train operations. You can only upgrade an existing railway network up to a certain point; without a dramatic overhaul, the main arteries of our network are currently close to (or at) their limit in terms of safe operational capacity. An assessment of the West Coast Main Line (WCML) by Network Rail in 2020 stated:
There is no available capacity without significantly impacting performance [...] due to the resulting requirement for successive services to run on minimum headway. This means that there is insufficient capacity to support additional paths without a recast of the WCML timetable.
Put simply, our current network is full. As the UK population grows, so will the demand for rail capacity, even if recent figures suggest rail travel is currently at 70% of pre-pandemic levels. Adding more trains to our current network reduces timetable resilience, which means that the chances of your train home from work being delayed or cancelled are therefore much higher.
Prior to Phase 2b being modified, reports suggested that Leeds would be provided with an integrated tram network as a "consolation" for the loss of its section of HS2. This isn't a suitable replacement for being a primary terminus of the UK's largest infrastructure project in a century. It's comparable to swapping a Tesla for a tricycle; the latter is slower, has a smaller capacity, can't go as far, and is much less appealing to passengers.
The saving grace is that the government's plans suggest that the Leeds - Manchester - Liverpool corridor is still on track to receive an upgrade as part of the Great North Rail Project's Transpennine Route Upgrade, and the IRP details further improvements to other existing rail infrastructure.. However, it's important to note that the 'new money' being thrown at the IRP is realistically money that would have been spent on HS2 Phase 2b anyway, and as such this does not count as a 'new' investment.
Does any of this solve the problem of overcrowding and delays that threatens to perpetually plague large swathes of the UK rail network? No. Will it do for now? Unfortunately for the North, it seems like it will have to.