Speculation is rife that the first phase of the HS2 rail link from London to the North will be approved next week. Regular readers of this blog will know that I have severe doubts about the scheme as planned, but I thought it might be good to summarize my views with scores out of ten:
Proposing a new line rather than upgrading the existing one - 8/10
A large part of the campaign against HS2 has been focussed on alternatives that seek to improve the existing lines. I have always considered this to be a mistake by the campaigners, essentially caused by lack of knowledge of recent rail history. The last West Coast Main Line (WCML) upgrade was a £10bn fiasco. It caused huge disruption to travellers, went hugely over-budget, and achieved a fraction of its original goals. Major upgrades of the existing line to handle the capacity growth is simply an unwise course of action.
That said, some upgrades of the existing WCML line are needed to handle passenger growth in the time between now and the opening of HS2. The Government has failed to indicate that this will happen, or that they will fund the enhanced local services that will be possible with the new line open. Because of the lack of joined up thinking, I only give a score of 8 out of 10.
The core route choice (Old Oak Common - south Aylesbury - M42 east of Birmingham) - 5/10
If you start with a location somewhere near Heathrow (Old Oak Common) and have to head close to Birmingham, then the route chosen is what I'd call fair. Given those constraints, there were only a few route options and the one chosen really isn't that bad (unless you're directly affected). For reference, I don't consider the possible M40 route to be markedly better - just different.
The real problem I have is that I disagree with the constraints of "near Heathrow" and "east of Birmingham". I explored this further in my HC-Midland route proposal. That focussed on enhancing local and regional journeys, not just national ones - a strategy that should have been evaluated in detail.
Old Oak Common - 7/10
Old Oak Common is one of the two London stations and is designed to integrate with Crossrail. So far there has only been limited discussion as to how Old Oak can be integrated into the local rail network in London. This integration is vital, as most travel to HS2 in London will be by public transport. The HS2 proposal should have provided much more detail and plans on how that integration (with the London Overground, Central line and Bakerloo line) will work. There is potential here, but it could easily be ruined without additional money being spent on connecting the station to nearby lines.
Euston - 6/10
HS2 requires a huge amount of space in its London Terminus, something that will require a complete rebuild of Euston and the demolition of a large area next to the station. This isn't terrible (unless you're directly affected), but is far from ideal. Furthermore, Euston will probably require the expensive Crossrail 2 scheme to assist with distributing passengers.
My view is that a far better terminus would be Waterloo. It already has 5 empty platforms of the correct size (the ex-Eurostar platforms), and gaining the additional room is possible by tunnelling local London services (which has additional benefits to Londoners and is cheaper than the comparable Crossrail 2 scheme for Euston). But the key benefit of Waterloo is that it enhances access to the North of the country from the south of London and the southern home counties, something that would provide journey time reductions of over an hour in total (evaluated door-to-door, rather than HS2's flawed point-to-point). So, choosing Euston misses a huge opportunity to really change national accessibility.
Birmingham Interchange - 1/10
Birmingham Interchange is an offensively named station that simply isn't an interchange. It is a car park in a green-belt field with a local people-mover to the airport. There is absolutely no planned integration with the local rail network and all access will be by car, in an area where traffic problems are already very serious. It has no redeeming features.
This is the single worst part of the proposed scheme, as I wrote in a full blog post.
Birmingham Curzon Street - 2/10
The site for Birmingham's new central station is Curzon Street (Fazely Street). This location is close to Moor Street station at one end and alongside the existing access to New Street station. The site is ideally located for Birmingham City Centre and if that was the purpose of HS2 all would be fine. However, HS2 is supposed to serve the West Midlands, not the city centre.
The key problem is one of integration with the local rail network. How is a person living along the Cross-City line from Redditch to Sutton Coldfield meant to access Curzon Street? Well all we have are vague hand-waving statements of it only being a "short walk". This is pathetic stuff, as it ignores what that means in practice: "Take train from Redditch to New Steet. Exit the station. Walk through the city centre (late at night?). Enter Curzon Street station. Finally board train for London. All with a heavy suitcase."
We already know that this doesn't work in practice, at Stratford. Eurostar determined that there was no demand from Stratford International despite Stratford being a huge railway junction providing access to a huge population of East London, Essex and beyond. The reason is the "short walk" of 6 minutes between the two stations - Stratford Regional (where all the local trains are) and Stratford International (where the Eurostars would have been). Failing to learn from the mistake at Stratford would be a huge error for the West Midlands.
But the answer isn't New Street station. That really is full. Instead, I wrote up details of how a new Birmingham Central station could solve the problem, plugging HS2 into the local rail network in the same way that Euston plugs into the London Underground.
The current HS2 scheme has some "OK" aspects and a few really dire ones. I am in agreement with the principal of a new line, although not with the 250mph speed. The chosen core route is alright, but one providing enhanced local and regional access (the M1 HC-Midland route) would have been much better. But my real ire is for the two Birmingham stations, which are extremely poor.
My hope is that the HS2 scheme now moves more into detailed planning where some minor variations can be worked on at the stations. Specifically, I hope that Birmingham planners finally realise the ensuing disaster and start to argue for integration with the local rail network.