‘Not just speed, but fundamentally capacity’ – Commons debate on HS2

Esther McVey MP

MPs opposing HS2 suggested a new freight line, high speed rail elsewhere, or even a new line should be built from London to Milton Keynes.

It’s incredibly confusing and not the united front or coordinated assault opposition groups doubtless anticipated.

The House of Commons debate yesterday (Thursday 13 October) on HS2 was secured by MPs in opposition to the £17bn scheme.

But within minutes of the debate opening it was clear there going to be some surprises for both sides.

Andrea Leadsom, MP for south Northamptonshire, made many of the familiar arguments against, focusing on cost and the environment.

But then she put forward her solution: A new line to be built from London to Milton Keynes.

The rest of the country would be able to use the existing West Coast Main Line, she said.

It remains to be seen what opponents to HS2 in the south think about another line being built near their homes, but what about capacity for the Midlands and North?

How does this solve the congestion elsewhere in this country as passenger numbers rise to their highest level since the 1920s?

Geoffrey Robinson, MP for Coventry North West, said Centro had made the case that local and regional capacity was needed. This is true, but Centro fully support HS2 as it will release capacity for these services on existing lines.

Mr Robinson said he would support HS2 if he represented Manchester or Leeds.

Next up to speak was Birmingham Hall Green MP, Roger Godsiff – the only Birmingham MP to come out against HS2.

Mr Godsiff said high speed trains worked best in countries with large land masses. In fact, they work best when serving large population centres. The Japanese railway is excellent evidence of this.

Plenty of MPs spoke in support of HS2, with Wirral West MP, Esther McVey, explaining that ‘just because a decision is hard and opposition loud doesn’t mean we should shy away.’

She said ‘HS2 is not just about speed, but fundamentally about capacity.’

Wimbledon MP, Stephen Hammond, said he had taken the time to study alternative schemes put forward by HS2 opponents.

‘They don’t address peak-time demand’ he said and described them as ‘hotch-potch alternatives.’

Paul Maynard MP (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) agreed that Rail Package 2 (known as RP2) and RP2+ did not solve capacity problems at peak times.

Luton North MP Kelvin Hopkins called for a new freight line to be built.

Cambridge MP, Julian Huppert, said: ‘HS2 Is not a luxury, but a cold, hard necessity.’

He added that capacity had often been covered up because of an obsession with journey times between Birmingham and London.

Stuart Andrew, MP for Pudsey, agreed with him.

‘If we don’t face the realities of transport infrastructure, we grind to a halt,’ he said.

He pointed out the economic case for HS2 was stronger than those of Crossrail and the Jubilee Line Extension.

“But I didn’t see the white elephant when Jubilee Line and Crossrail were suggested,’ he said.

John Woodcock, MP for Barrow and Furness, said: ‘This can be about bringing local economies of this country closer together.’

He added: ‘Capacity issues are so great there’s no credible alternative to HS2.’

Transport Minister Theresa Villiers concluded the debate by stating that benefits from HS2 would be felt right across the Midlands and North.

Judging by the activity on twitter and other social media it clearly wasn’t the debate HS2 opponents were expecting.

AGHAST spokesperson Jerry Marshall claimed Birmingham businesses lived in a ‘bubble of ignorance’ presumably because they do not share his viewpoint.

Sadly it is predominantly the argument from those MPs opposing the route which has been reported.

This is a shame as Esther McVey, Stephen Hammond, Stuart Andrew, Julian Huppert and others had clearly done their research and they are firmly behind HS2.


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5 Responses to ‘Not just speed, but fundamentally capacity’ – Commons debate on HS2

  1. William Barter says:

    Andrea Leadsom MP, in the recent House of Commons debate on HS2, has suddenly come up with an idea that does not seem to have been suggested before, namely, building a new suburban railway from Euston to Milton Keynes. At least she seems to have dropped the Devil’s Advocate alternative to HS2 dreamed up by the DfT, Rail Package 2, a package of works incorporating pretty well everything that was too difficult to do in the last upgrade of the West Coast Main Line.

    Andrea’s objection to HS2 boils down to the business case, so presumably she thinks that her idea will offer a better one. Fair enough, let’s think it through and see. Will it, in proportion to its benefits, cost less?

    It’s not quite clear whether she wants this to be a brand new alignment, or whether she is suggesting adding a pair of tracks to the WCML, but whichever you start with, they probably end up looking pretty similar. The idea, she says, is to leave the WCML free for long distance trains without interaction with the suburban trains. In fact, for a number of reasons, it would make more sense for the InterCity trains to use the new tracks whilst the existing suburbans get the existing railway to themselves.

    Let’s start with the benefits. There must be some, it would be difficult to build a new railway anywhere without finding some benefits, so what might she be thinking that they are? Perhaps that where there are 11 InterCity West Coast trains in a peak hour now, with the track to themselves and a 3-minute headway, like HS2, 18 trains per hour could be a sensible number. Sensible, that is, were it not for the need to stop some trains at Watford and Milton Keynes to connect those places to Birmingham and the North, when one stopping train broadly knocks out another through path. Currently Watford has one stop per hour and Milton Keynes has three, so unless their connectivity Northwards is to be severed, that brings us down to 14 InterCity West Coast trains in a peak hour, three more than now. Maybe by timing the Milton Keynes stopper carefully in the gap created by the Watford stop, we could make that four (note that as Andrea’s new railway goes only as far as Milton Keynes, links northwards from Watford and Milton Keynes could not be provided by extended regional trains in place of InterCity services).

    As for the suburbans, by implication there will be a free pair of tracks for the fast Milton Keynes and Northampton trains, so these could happily be increased from 2 to 4 per hour, with some capacity left, possibly for the odd freight train as well between these 100 mph passenger trains. So far so good.

    The problem with the InterCity trains is that they are limited by platform lengths at Euston to the current maximum length, unless the station is to be rebuilt pretty well as planned for HS2, not to mention others en route to wherever the trains are going. So there is no chance of using high-capacity long trains on Andrea’s railway, and we are left with capacity increases that are somewhat higher than the malign RP2, but much less than HS2 with its potential for 18 trains, each 400 metres long, per hour, over and above anything that running on the existing West Coast Main Line. By not taking her new railway through to Birmingham (in fact terminating it just short of her South Northants constituency – can’t think why!), Andrea is severely limiting the use that can be made of it.

    How about the costs? There is probably no alternative to tunnelling from Euston to somewhere North of Watford, as was proposed for rejected HS2 options. We might, possibly, avoid a couple of miles of tunnel by surfacing between Harrow and Bushey to use an existing pair of tracks whilst pushing suburban trains over onto the under-used DC pair of tracks, but for the extra junctions is it worth it? Especially if the Bakerloo does, as has been suggested, take over the whole DC line Watford instead of stopping short at Harrow while just three London Overground trains per hour continue to Watford.

    It’s also worth saying that it is the through trains that should use the new line rather than the suburbans, so as not to have stations on the tunnel section – underground stations are very expensive to build and operate. So unless Watford is to lose its Intercity service completely, that means junctions to bring a train or two to the surface and stop at Watford Junction.

    Whether Andrea then wants a new alignment from Watford to Milton Keynes, or to add another pair of tracks to the WCML, is not clear. If the former, the impact on property and the countryside is going to be much as for HS2; if the latter, the impact on property will be much higher, as a trip on the line through Kings Langley, Berkhamsted and Leighton Buzzard will make clear. Berkhamsted brings particular problems, where the line twists between the Castle and the Grand Union Canal – one or the other will have to go, Andrea does not say which is in her sights. Unless she is in fact proposing a new alignment around Berkhamsted, and presumably other major locations as well, so much of the distance that it might as well be a new railway throughout.

    Again, if a new railway there is to be, then it should be for the through trains, so as not to have separate East and West, North and South stations everywhere for the inner and outer suburban trains. Of course, new tracks on the present alignment would not just limit speeds to the current levels, but probably reduce speeds for all trains so as to fit the extra tracks around the twists and turns of the current route.

    North of Milton Keynes, Andrea’s extra Intercity trains will be using the current route. So unless local and regional services are to be cut further, then some very expensive works, such as the 4-tracking on the Stour Valley line to Birmingham, and the £1.2 billion, 14 km, Stafford Bypass will be essential. And what about a station in Birmingham? New Street could not take the extra trains. Maybe we should look for a new site to build an InterCity station, , perhaps at Curzon Street – a touch further from the city centre than New Street, but serving a regeneration area (as did New Street originally, the hint’s in the name).

    And trying to use the current route North of Milton Keynes has one very specific implication for South Northamptonshire, which despite has no station of its own, leading to very poor rail links Northwards and a tedious drive for commuters to access London via Milton Keynes. But if fast through trains are transferred to HS2, it becomes possible to open a station near Blisworth, handy for the M1 and A43 to serve Brackley and Towcester as well as Western parts of Northampton. This would allow direct acces from the area to Birmingham and the North, as well as giving commuters more time on the train and less in the car. By promoting alternatives to HS2, Andrea is ruling out the most significant strategic development in rail services for her constituency likely to arise this century – this is not fighting for her back yard, but fouling her own nest.

    Finally, opponents of HS2 have made much play of extra passengers making use of Euston underground station, but they forget that HS2 provides interchange with Crossrail at Old Oak Common, for anyone heading for the West End, City or Docklands. Andrea’s plan leaves all extra passengers heading for Euston, where Crossrail 2 might cater for the West End flow, but there is no proposal on the table to do anything that could possibly give capacity for flows currently served by the Northern Line to the City and Docklands.

    So where does all that leave the business case for LeadsomRail? On the benefits side, there would be more capacity than RP2, but less than HS2, with none of its journey time savings. But on the cost side, Andrea seems to have come up with a scheme that includes the most expensive bits not just of HS2 but also of RP2, plus not only Crossrail 2 to take people from Euston to the West End but also Crossrail 3 to take them to the City. Not to mention more destruction of property and amenities relative to its length than HS2. And all for the sake of keeping her new railway out of her own constituency.

    If her objection to HS2 is the business case, she’ll be spitting tacks at her own idea when she comes to think it through.

  2. gohs2 says:

    Thanks William, for an excellent and detailed post. 51M and other HS2 opponents seem to have ignored this suggestion from Andrea Leadsom MP. Perhaps they weren’t expecting it, but they have had plenty of time to react since as to whether they support it.
    It seems more likely they don’t want to address the problems you have eloquently raised and brush this under the carpet.
    Unfortunately, the media has also paid little or no attention to this idea.
    It proves that some critics are happy to dismiss HS2, but when ‘alternative’ solutions are examined (though they are quickly hamstrung by shortcomings including capacity problems, impact on property and countryside, prohibitive costs and numerous other concerns) they are not examined in anywhere near enough detail.
    This leads to vague, empty statements being bounced around about there being ‘plenty of suitable alternatives.’ Opponents to HS2 do this safe in the knowledge that examination of their faltering schemes is deemed to be too complex by most commentators/media.

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  5. William Barter says:

    To be fair to 51M, it’s left them in a quandary. Their parliamentary cheerleader has suddenly dropped the scheme they have built all their hopes on – do they change track with her and drop their own idea, or do they rubbish her and send team and cheerleader off in different directions? Both should recall “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive” – neither RP2 Turbo nor LeadsomRail are serious projects rooted in a transport planning need, both are just red herrings floated to damage HS2 and keep the zombie argument “you haven’t looked at ALL the alternatives” alive. So between the two there is no objective basis for a choice, just spin and politics, and so they can’t decide what to do.

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