Britain’s journey to high-speed rail travel has been costly, complex and steeped in denial. Now HS2 has been put on hold. Should it be saved?by Wendell Steavenson / August 31, 2019 / Leave a comment
This summer, I took the 9.23am Virgin Trains peak service from London Euston to Birmingham New Street, calling at Coventry and Birmingham International. Euston is set off from a main, trafficky road behind a square of plane trees and a park obscured by long stretches of construction hoardings. I walked past large yellow signs: “No Pedestrian Access to Melton Street or Euston Road.” At the bottom of the hoarding was printed the reason: HS2.
HS2 is High Speed Two, Britain’s largest infrastructure project, the first new rail line to be built north of London in 150 years—a future-proof, super-fast railway that will run trains at up to 250mph to 25 stations including Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester. HS2 represents the most ambitious British rail project since the Victorian steam era, which allowed people to travel to work and play by linking cities with villages, creating suburbs and seaside resorts, and changing where and how we lived.
HS2 also promises national transformation. By reducing journey times—Birmingham in 45 minutes (almost half the 88 minutes it ended up taking me), Manchester in an hour and a quarter (now just over two hours), Leeds in an hour and 23 minutes (now two hours 15, if you’re lucky)—it aims to regenerate inner cities, create new towns at out-of-city station sites, provide jobs, free up capacity on the existing route to offer better short-hop and commuter services and, in the process, telescope the economic gap between north and south. The prospectus is full of promising words: connect, community, catalyst, choice, comfort. But in the decade since the project was launched, HS2 has come to stand more for controversy than communication.
Earlier this year, preliminary works began in earnest—access roads laid, sites cleared for spoil from tunnel excavations, electricity substations and gas mains moved, streams diverted, trees felled, buildings demolished, valleys surveyed, hills drilled, core samples analysed, lawsuits over compulsory purchase orders fought and settled, consultants consulted, tenders tendered, contractors contracted. But a curious doubt has settled over the whole project.
Even with diggers moving ground, the government never gave the final sign-off for Phase 1 of the project—the line to Birmingham—that would have formally swung it from planning-and-design stage to construction. The “Notice to Proceed” has been delayed three times, from…