Report of meeting Friday 5 November 2021 on HS2 Ltd with BEN GOODWIN
“It would have been a good idea,” mused one member after the meeting, “if HS2 had taken on Saatchi & Saatchi right from the start. Then they could have controlled the media and bad press better and saved a load of hassle.” Quite.
It can take a long time before the value of huge infrastructure projects outlives their bad reception. HS1, the line from St Pancras to Folkestone, faced similar ferocious opposition in the 1980s, but “No one can imagine being without Eurostar now,” said our speaker, Ben Goodwin, Northern Campaign Lead at High Speed Two (HS2) Ltd. He might have added, that when trains elsewhere were halted through bad weather or other disasters recently, Eurostar just kept going. Modern trains are a lot more resilient.
And it can be a surprise to realise that HS2 is actually under way, with huge tunnelling machines Florence, Cecilia and Dorothy (all named after British heroines) now driving 15m each a day under the Chilterns. “You won’t see much,” Ben said. “It’s not going to be a scenic route – mostly tunnel – 32 miles of the 140 under construction from Euston to Birmingham – or in cuttings.” But that gives a straight, fast route, which will sustain speeds of 225mph by extra-long electric trains carrying 1,100 passengers each. That’s faster than the Japanese bullet train, faster than an F1 car. And we will be able to get on board (promised!!) in 2029.
At that point, of course, the proposed new line to Manchester will not be open; from Brum onwards we would be trundling along old lines. But still, it will be enough to reduce journey times significantly. The aim is London to Glasgow in 3hrs 40mins; HS2 will serve over 25 destinations and connect 30 million people. And more locally, Wigan to Birmingham will eventually be a 36 minute journey. That beats driving.
Speed, however, is not the justification for HS2, despite the name. The existing rail system heading north from London is at full capacity and has been for ages. It’s heavily used not only by passengers but has reached its limit on freight, too – Tesco have just been told they cannot put any more lorryloads onto trains in order to alleviate the HGV driver shortage; there isn’t any spare room. And we as passengers are obliquely aware of that fact, as continual freight carriage means it’s not possible to close the railroad for maintenance at night; that work is done over weekends and bank holidays. Just try travelling then; it’s a nightmare. HS2 will avoid that by carrying out necessary work once the line closes to passengers at night.
Couldn’t we just increase capacity on existing lines? Well, Network Rail have been doing that by improving and renovating Victorian infrastructure throughout the land: “They spend £130million every week removing bottlenecks and keeping everything going, £74 billion in the last ten years,” said Ben, “and it’s still not enough.” Rail traffic has grown dramatically since the 1990s, and climate change efforts mean rail will be expected to carry more in the future. Hence HS2, doubling the number of seats out of London and aiming to carry 300,000 passengers a day. Like it or not, it becomes inevitable.
Ben started life as a trainspotter and model railway enthusiast, who volunteered at various train museums for fun while working as a journalist. It dawned on him that he could combine his passion and his profession, and has been involved with HS2 for several years. He’s not an engineer, and was clear what his job doesn’t involve: “We only build the railway. We won’t be running it.” So fares will be somebody else’s headache, years into the future.
He also wouldn’t be drawn on whether HS3, or Northern Powerhouse Rail – the route across (or rather underneath) the Pennines connecting Manchester with Leeds and possibly Sheffield – is at all likely. The Victorians built the Woodhead Tunnel which was in use for nearly a century, but it now houses massive electric cables and frustratingly would be too small for a modern train. Better to build a new tunnel. If we can successfully bore under London (complicated) or Amersham (granite down there), then surely a 20-mile section route through to Yorkshire would be – well, straightforward? With COP26 fomenting a renewed urgency on climate change, perhaps this has moved up the agenda. The High Peak MP sits on the Transport Select Committee and had sent a staffer to take notes; Grant Shapps the current Transport Secretary is genuinely interested. We will know before long.
So this is where we’re at: HS2 Phase 1 (London to West Midlands) is under way, with a price tag including stations, cuttings, tunnels, viaducts, archaeology, the UK’s longest railway bridge across the Colne Valley and an immense green corridor, of £44billion. Phase 2a, West Midlands to Crewe, got Royal Assent in February this year and is at tender stage with three named competitors (they’ll probably all get a bite). Phase 2b’s western leg, from Crewe to Manchester via the airport and Wigan, has a hybrid Parliamentary Bill coming in the New Year. And a decision on Phase 2b’s eastern leg (West Midlands to Leeds and York via Chesterfield and Sheffield) is expected soon when the Government publishes its Integrated Rail Plan.
And what’s in it for us…? Thousands of SMEs and local firms are needed to get involved, Ben pointed out. The workforce is 20,000 at present, rising to 34,000 at peak. They need housing during construction, services from food to hairdressing to branded clothing (one member pricked up his ears). The supply chain complexity is breath-taking: slabs come from Somerset, tunnel rings from Hartlepool. 400,000 contracts are up for grabs on Phase 1 alone – take a look at www.CompeteFor.com.HS2, or sign up for regular Meet The Contractor events. Businesses are invited to attend virtual seminars, business fairs, and to register their interest – see www.hs2.or.uk/local-business. It’s all to play for.