Euston, We Have a Problem

I’ve been thinking about this for some time now – months, really, ever since the Sun first reported on a ludicrous-sounding plan to cut the bottom off HS2, so that it terminated not at Euston, but at Old Oak Common – and I simply don’t believe it.

There is no way, no way at all, that a major country, even one in such a state as this one, would build a new high-speed rail link between its major cities, and decide to terminate it five miles west of the capital in some scrubby industrial park next to a prison. It’s especially not going to do this without a way of getting passengers between that scrubby industrial park and the places where they actually want to go. (Seriously, they’re not all going to fit on the Elizabeth line.)

The transport secretary, Mark Harper, claims there are technical problems which mean HS2 may not reach central London until the line runs all the way to Manchester, but this to me has the vague air of Department for Transport brinkmanship, of making it clear to the Treasury that the whole country will look ridiculous if it doesn’t stump up a bit more cash. The only slight problems with this theory are that

a)    Harper is strikingly pro-car; and

b)   the Treasury has a long history of looking ridiculous and not showing the slightest concern about it

But nonetheless: it feels more likely that it’s a move in an internal government argument than a serious proposal to open a new rail line that costs tens of billions of pounds, whose main function is to cut Birmingham off from central London. Surely. Surely.

If I’m wrong, though, it will, perversely, help to answer one of the main critiques of HS2. If you have spent any time at all talking about trains – in writing, on the internet, at parties, whether people want to or not – you will have encountered the following incessantly asked question: “Is it really worth it, just to knock half an hour off the travel time to Birmingham?” Underrated metropolis though Birmingham undoubtedly is, that does indeed seem like a silly reason to spend £100 billion on a new railway line. If the government is truly willing to dump Brummie passengers in a wilderness several miles outside London proper, thus undermining the argument that HS2 will make their journey quicker, though: well, something else is clearly going on.

Outside ill-thought through government press releases and its opponents’ resulting fever dreams, of course, the purpose of HS2 has never been speed at all. Actually, it was always meant to help do two, related things.

The first is to create more long-distance capacity on a railway network which, as the current combination of ludicrous ticket prices and busy trains suggests, is currently pretty much full. Making it easier to get from one end of the country to the other by train will be a good thing, in and of itself. It should also provide an alternative to carbon-spewing short-haul flights, and so be good for the planet, too. Most people, I’d guess, would rather take a train between two city centres than fly – the latter may be quicker, but it’s also vastly more stressful. The main barrier to them doing so – to Britain even moving to ban short-haul flights, as France is already doing – is that travelling on our trains currently costs a fortune. A new line, though, will create more paths, more trains, a better experience and the potential for cheaper tickets: that would mean more passengers opting to go by train and fewer by plane. Brilliant.

That argument is pretty intuitive. One that isn’t is that HS2 will also create more local and regional capacity, too. As things stand, parts of the network are shared between slow and fast trains, and the latter limits the number of the former you can run without trains bashing into each other in an unpleasant way.

Creating a new route that separates fast trains from slow, then, will allow you to run more slow trains, too. That’ll make it possible to run more local trains, and even move more freight from road to rail. This is why building HS2 is the green thing to do, even if it does involve bulldozing an (impressively small) number of bits of ancient woodland on the way – while the Lower Thames Crossing, say, isn’t.

There’s one more argument which oddly people don’t seem to talk about quite so much, and which is best summed up with a story. On Wednesday 26 September 2018, a cable broke in Wembley, causing signal failure, and preventing trains from running between London and Watford for roughly two hours. That’d be a pain in the bum on any London commuter line, but this wasn’t just a commuter line: it was also the West Coast Main Line. The breakage thus effectively cut London off from Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Liverpool, and a bunch of other cities, too, causing chaos the length of the country. This was a particular pain for the large chunk of the Westminster bubble who were trying to get back from Labour conference in Liverpool at the time.

HS2 wouldn’t prevent cables breaking – but it would provide redundancy, creating another route between the capital and many of the places served by the West Coast Main Line. If they ever build the eastern leg, it’ll do the same for the East Coast Main Line, and the Midland Main Line, too. Alternative routes and back-up systems seem to me to be worth having.

Why doesn’t the Department for Transport talk about any of this? Why has it made so little effort to make the case for HS2, other than to talk about shiny but essentially luxury things like slight savings in journey time? Because, I suspect, that “high-speed rail” sounds exciting and future-facing, in exactly the way that “If we don’t do something like this, the country will break” does not.

The latter, however, remains unavoidably true. We need HS2 – and all the way to Euston, too.

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