Tuesday, 4 August 2020

HS2 connecting the Northern Powerhouse to the Midlands Engine

Many proponents of HS2, myself included have over the years tried to ensure that the benefits of building HS2 are focused mainly on capacity, which is the most important reason for building the new railway. The journey time improvements that will be brought about by the introduction of HS2 services are welcome, and are indeed also important, but in terms of absolute need for the project, cutting journey times is secondary.

This is undeniably true for phase 1 between London and the West Midlands, which serves to alleviate the chronic capacity shortage on the existing southern section of the West Coast Mainline. Even heading further North, between the West Midlands and Crewe there is limited to no remaining capacity available on the WCML, this despite upgrades to the existing infrastructure, such at the £250m Stafford AreaImprovement Programme, which involved grade separation of Norton Bridge junction.

The East Coast Main Line is also nearing capacity and will benefit from construction of the eastern arm of HS2. The eastern section will benefit both the ECML and MML by releasing capacity on those lines for more local and regional services. With express services from Edinburgh, Newcastle, Leeds, Sheffield and others transferred onto HS2.

It seems however that the debate about whether or not to build the eastern section has resurfaced once again. There are those who ague; that the section from the West Midlands to Leeds and the ECML should not be built at all. They argue that it isn't required and capacity could be increased more cost effectively on the existing Midland and East Coast Main Lines.

I for one think this argument is nonsense and that the capacity argument which is true for the WCML is equally true for the ECML and MML. However I also think that a massive benefit of HS2 from the West Midlands to Leeds and Manchester is often overlooked.

That benefit being; the slashing of journey times from Leeds to Birmingham and from Manchester to Birmingham. A phrase which I often use (which is yet catch on) is "HS2 connects the Northern Powerhouse to the Midlands Engine". It's corny I know, but it does say simply what the northern section of HS2 is capable of delivering. Connecting regions covered by the Northern Powerhouse partnership with regions covered by the Midlands Engine partnership.
HS2 Ltd map showing phases 2a and 2b

Currently to get from Manchester to Birmingham takes 1 hour 30 minutes. To get from Leeds to Birmingham takes up to 2 hours! In this day and age it seems crazy that it takes so long. But it does highlight the fact that there simply isn't space on the existing infrastructure to improve services which connect 3 of the UK's largest cities.

If HS2 is delivered in full these journey times will be dramatically reduced. Manchester to Birmingham slashed to just 40 minutes, with Leeds to Manchester cut by over a half, to just 49 minutes. Journey time reductions such as these simply would not be possible without the construction of HS2.

HS2 Manchester to Birmingham - 40 minutes

HS2 Leeds to Birmingham - 49 minutes

Currently the fastest services from Leeds and Manchester to Birmingham are also some of the most crowded. The problem being that the Cross Country services which currently connect Leeds and Manchester to Birmingham also serve other routes, continuing south from Birmingham to Plymouth and Bournemouth. In effect Cross Country services serve two different markets, long distance to the south coast and regional to Birmingham. As vital as these sorts of long distance routes are, it does mean that passengers end up with busy, suboptimal regional links.

So whilst I agree it is absolutely critical that proponents of HS2 continue to push the message that HS2 is needed for capacity, I also think not enough emphasis is given to Leeds - Manchester - Birmingham connectivity. The connection of which with fast and frequent rail services could boost the economies of the Midlands and the North and shift the balance the UK economy north of Watford Gap.

I must point out however, that I do not subscribe to the argument that we should be building the northern sections first. Building the section between London and the West Midlands is needed to unlock capacity on the southern section of WCML. Providing extra capacity into London still remains vital and in addition unlocks the potential for even greater connectivity with other parts of the south via Old Oak Common.

I would like to discus Old Oak Common in more detail in a future blog.....

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