|Stone station: under threat from alternative proposals to HS2.|
I should be happy: we have reached the end of the beginning. UK Transport Secretary Justine Greening has indeed confirmed the government’s commitment to press ahead with construction of a national high speed rail network, starting with the first phase of HS2 between London and the West Midlands.
There certainly won’t be any gloating from those in favour of the project; there is too much work still to do, not least of which is to negotiate the laborious Hybrid Bill process in Parliament. Nevertheless, I’d say there was a ‘better than evens’ chance of HS2 going ahead. But any suggestion that the debate over the merits of the project would subside is misplaced – arguments about the scheme’s benefits will run and run. And to that end, the question of ‘if not HS2…?’ is not going to go away.
My support for HS2 has always been caveated by the need for it to be cheaper, greener and, if possible, sooner. And I think all those points are achievable – but more than anything, we cannot repeat the diabolical blunder that was the £9bn West Coast Route Modernisation. I blogged about this in detail the other week, and – despite it barely meriting a mention in most mass media coverage of yesterday’s announcement – it remains one of the most botched public procurement projects of recent years.
Perhaps the most unpleasant aspect of WCRM for anyone who cares about our rail network was the enforced closure of three stations in Staffordshire on capacity grounds. Barlaston, Wedgwood and Stone stations were closed in 2003 at the height of the mess; the latter reopened in 2008, served by an hourly stopping train from London.
Why does this matter now? Because, appallingly, history might be about to repeat itself, and nobody appears much bothered. Opposition to HS2 is being led by the High Speed Action Alliance of local campaigners and 51M, a group of local authorities opposed to the new line. They have prepared a counter-proposal insisting that the existing rail network can meet projected growth between London and the north for the foreseeable future.
In the lead up to Justine Greening’s announcement, Network Rail and the Department for Transport published a report casting doubt on the benefits of such a strategy. Buried in the report is confirmation that ‘some stations would be left unserved by rail’ under the alternative plans; they are Atherstone and Stone (p6). The report adds that Rugeley would lose its rail service down the Trent Valley line towards Nuneaton, Rugby and London – a(nother) valuable local connection severed.
As if that weren’t enough, the report also confirms proposals for a 21 km Stafford Bypass. This would leave the current WCML at Colwich and head through open countryside at grade to a point north of Norton Bridge; it would provide capacity for just one extra train per hour from London at a projected cost of more than £1bn. Not bad for those who claim to be acting in the best interests of England’s rural idylls…
|The village of Colwich, Staffordshire, where the Stafford Bypass would diverge from the West Coast Main Line. Photo: R Kidd|
I would be quite cynical about the release of Network Rail’s report if it did not reinforce previously-released assessments of capacity contained in its West Coast Route Utilisation Strategy. And the prior loss of local rail services in Staffordshire confirms that this is no phantom threat.
Principled local opposition to HS2 is understandable and in many ways healthy, but please let us not pretend high speed rail is some superfluous White Elephant: our creaking railway does not exist in the best of all possible worlds, we face some very tough choices about capacity. Greening is right to press on.