Reverse Tory cuts to rail investment: Back HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail

Greens for HS2 will be debating HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail at Spring Conference this weekend. Pete Johnson of Lambeth Green Party and Greens for HS2 explains the motion to back building both these rail schemes in full, to reverse Tory cuts in plans for rail expansion in the North.

Greens for HS2
Greens for HS2
Pete Johnson

So what are these schemes and why should Greens be on their side – even though previously conference has voted to oppose HS2?

What is HS2?

HS2, in its full shape, is a new railway line built in a Y-shape up through England. From London (eventually from Euston, but initially from a new station at Old Oak Common in West London) it runs to Birmingham, where it splits. 

One leg of the Y goes to the North West – to Manchester and then linking into the existing railway so trains can continue to Liverpool and northwards via Carlisle to Glasgow and, eventually, Edinburgh. The other leg goes north-eastwards, via Toton near Derby and Nottingham, with a branch to Sheffield, and on to Leeds, with a link also to the existing line to York so trains can continue there and to Newcastle.

Why is it being built? 

Because the main West Coast line linking London and Glasgow via the West Midlands and the North West is crammed full with trains. There’s no room to expand train services. Birmingham is particularly bad. Our other two north-south main lines – the Midland line linking London and Sheffield and the East Coast line between London and Leeds, York and Newcastle – are also full. 

If we want to expand local, regional and freight train services, we need to add tracks. The most effective way to do that is to build a new line: HS2.

How does it work?

Our current railway network can’t use its capacity efficiently because it’s trying to fit in all different types of trains – expresses, inter-urban, local stoppers and freight. Trains that go at different speeds and stop in different places get in each others’ way. The best way to solve this is to separate the different types

The best win comes from removing the express trains, leaving the existing lines to deal with the other types. We get a triple whammy this way: 

  • The expresses can go on the new lines and therefore, using the latest tech, be faster and thus competitive with the car and the plane over longer trips;
  • We can run more expresses, because they’re all going the same speed as each other so don’t clash;
  • We can run more local, regional and freight trains on the old lines because the expresses aren’t barging the other trains out of the way. This means, among other things, that many intermediate towns that now see dozens of fast trains speeding through but not stopping, can get a more frequent service.

Why can’t we expand existing lines?

It would be amazingly destructive. We’d need to widen the existing main lines and stations. They may have been built in the open country back in Victorian times, but now they’re hemmed in by houses, businesses and roads. Literally thousands of properties would be demolished.

The habitat loss would be immense. The lines were built right through woodlands, wetlands and other key habitats without a care. Widening them would destroy thousands of hectares.

It would mean decades of closures and train service misery for the present rail travellers, not to mention people living nearby.

And the result would just be a slightly-upgraded Victorian railway. It would need to use the same technology and have the same speed limits as the existing lines. A real missed opportunity to use latest tech to create a future-proof and appealing railway that would attract people to switch from car or plane.

Who’s building it?

HS2 Ltd. It’s a part of government – a bit like the Ordnance Survey. So, HS2 is a public railway, not a private one. We own it. Of course HS2 Ltd needs to hire contractors to do the actual building, so all the main construction companies are involved. This is a good thing: these are the people who know how to build stuff. 

And there are a lot of people involved: at the moment there are over 20,000 people working on the project, on over 300 sites. The big sites are at the new stations in London and Birmingham, the 10-mile-long tunnels under the Chilterns, and the viaduct taking the railway over the Colne Valley.

Why is it high speed?

If the object of the railway is just to add tracks for capacity, why couldn’t it be built for just normal speeds and so be bendier and avoid sensitive habitats? There are two main reasons: 

  • The first one is that more people will use a faster train. Every extra minute chopped off journey times persuades more people to switch from alternatives like car and plane. That’s why Intercity 125 trains were introduced in the 1970s. It’s why electrifying the London-Glasgow line and clearing bottlenecks to speed up trains snapped up a third of the market. We want this, because every trip done by train rather than car or plane is a sustainability win.
  • The second reason is to do with the Y shape of HS2 – particularly the Eastern arm to Leeds and York. By being fast, HS2 beats the existing expresses between London and Sheffield and Leeds. That means that express trains on those lines can shift to HS2, freeing up space for more local and freight trains on the Midland and East Coast lines too – all the way back to London.

Even though it is fast, it has been carefully routed to minimise impact on the most sensitive habitats. It’s impossible to avoid them all and also steer clear of towns, villages and cultural sites.

And what about Northern Powerhouse Rail?

Anyone who’s travelled on trains in the north knows the network is hugely congested. There are always delays at Manchester or Leeds as too many trains compete for limited space on the tracks or at the stations. Fast, local and freight trains are all jostling for the same lines and platforms. It needs a radical overhaul.

Northern Powerhouse Rail is the scheme devised by Transport for the North to do that. At its heart is a new East-West high-speed line running from Liverpool, via Manchester and Bradford (the worst-connected of all our major cities) through Leeds and on to York.

This links all those cities with a high-speed, high-frequency service – tripling the capacity and more than halving the journey time. It dissolves the East-West divide caused by the old winding Victorian lines through the Pennines. And it takes trains off tangled-up track at Manchester and Leeds, opening up capacity for lots more regional services in Lancashire, Cumbria, Yorkshire and Humberside.

But the Tories have slashed it!

In September 2021, the Tories slashed it all – in a move all local politicians are calling a ‘Rail Betrayal’. They cut the Eastern leg of HS2 and most of Northern Powerhouse Rail. They cut the Golborne Link which means HS2 trains will now run much more slowly to Glasgow, so fewer people will switch from flying.

If we’re serious about levelling up, cutting CO2 emissions and pollution, and improving Northern communities, we need to reverse these cuts. 

And once we’ve committed to that, we can get behind other plans to reopen useful closed lines like the Harrogate to Northallerton line via Ripon. These can never re-open while Leeds station is congested. 

There’s no big renewal of rail in the North without Northern Powerhouse Rail.

Why is this a problem for us?

Northern Powerhouse Rail relies on the big-ticket civil engineering works done to bring HS2 to Manchester and Leeds. These are the tunnelled approaches to Manchester from the West, the new station at Manchester Piccadilly for high-speed trains, and the same total rebuild of Leeds station on the other side.

It also shares about 25 per cent of its track with HS2.

HS2 can pay for these because it’s got the London connections which carry most of the passengers. There aren’t enough fare-paying passengers travelling East-West to make this massive investment worthwhile on its own.

So the Eastern Leg of HS2 is vital. Without it, there can’t be a Northern Powerhouse Rail.

That’s why we want all these railways to be built in full. 

At the moment opposition to HS2 means we can’t speak up loudly to support the North.

Why it’s time for us to re-think our approach to HS2

Green policy has long supported high-speed rail in principle, but we have so far objected to HS2 because of its ecological damage and cost. ‘We support rail, but not HS2’. 

The heavy clearance work for Phase One – London to Birmingham has now been done – the ancient woodland areas have been cut back, translocated and replanted. Additional planting has been done. 

If HS2 were stopped, all that damage and loss would have been for nothing – even though campaigning organisations and Greens pressed HS2 hard to limit it.

Many Greens are seeing that it’s time now to refocus on how to get the best out of this new railway. The parts that are going ahead can bring us Green benefits that we should support. They will

  • Open up the bottlenecks on the West Coast Main Line and at Birmingham and Manchester. The Midlands Engine Rail project will make excellent use of this, improving train services all across the region from Bristol to Crewe, Shrewsbury to Lincoln. Bristol-Birmingham, for example, will be twice as often and faster.
  • Get people out of CO2-spewing domestic flights. Five million people fly between London and Glasgow / Edinburgh every year. HS2 will replace at least one million air trips – and that’s before any Green policy on fares or flight levies are factored in. HS2 is really low-CO2, so every such trip is a big saving.

We can make it Greener

It’s being built – but it’s not how we’d like. There’s plenty to campaign for and as a critical friend we’ll have more influence. Here’s what we need to do:

  • Keep making sure HS2 Ltd protects the natural environment: biodiversity monitoring and enhancement, minimising habitat loss, reducing construction carbon, limiting pollution and waste;
  • Help local wildlife organisations such as Wildlife Trusts and Woodland Trust get access to data and monitor remedial work;
  • Make it easiest to access HS2 stations by public/active transport. They’ve been designed around car use – we want to minimise that;
  • Make sure the HS2 trains are fully accessible, including for families, bikes of all kinds and mobility device users;
  • Get Government to give Wales the compensation it deserves, to be invested in their own public transport; 
  • Press for a simple, joined-up and cheap fares policy to encourage take-up and multi-step journeys via HS2. Long-distance fares should be competitive with the air alternative; 
  • Redouble our opposition to airport expansion. HS2 doesn’t need airports to be a success – but airports may need HS2; 
  • Get the cycle network alongside HS2 built.

We can make it a Green HS2, not a half-baked Tory HS2.

So please support the motion to build HS2 and NPR in full. Support new railways in the UK – but make sure they’re built Green!