Why HS2 Phase 2A to Crewe must be saved

Precisely because HS2 is Europe’s biggest civil engineering project, it was always inevitably going to be its most passionately controversial. Binary arguments on all sides, of every aspect, from alleged woodland destruction to wasteful and damaging use of carbon in construction have raged for many years. The ‘battleground of the moment’ has often changed but HS2’s opposition has never been less than intense.

Short-term reasons of political expediency, usually masked as concern about costs, has seen the project relentlessly and ruthlessly pared back: the loss of HS2 East from Birmingham to Leeds was an especially savage and damaging blow. This killed off potentially the most transformative piece of the entire Y-network. The always-forgotten and overlooked East Midlands corridor from Birmingham, via Long Eaton, Nottingham, Sheffield, Leeds – and by extension to York, Newcastle and the north east was once again short-changed by a metropolitan Government which showed a cynical lack of concern for the huge improvements in connectivity that this desperately badly served region would have enjoyed from HS2.

Levelling up? Were it not so serious it would be laughable. What the HS2E region got instead from then Transport Secretary Grant Shapps was what Green Signals co-presenter Richard Bowker CBE acidly  – but accurately – describes now as the ‘Disintegrated Rail Plan.’ In place of revolutionised regional services and a fast link to London, Shapps promised instead that East Coast Main Line improvements would slash journey times by up to 20 minutes. A chorus of experts proved this to be impossible from the moment the words left his lips.

The Golborne Link, in Cheshire, which was utterly crucial for accelerated and improved services to Scotland, was sacrificed because it passed through Conservative 1822 Committee Chairman Sir Graham Brady’s constituency. More self-serving political decision making.

All this time, the argument was rumbling on (as it still does) about terminating HS2 at Old Oak Common – which would keep most of the costs whilst throwing away most of HS2’s benefits –  but these were all merely ‘openers’ for the biggest and most damaging cut of all, which none of us thought the Government would be quite so stupid as to implement. We were wrong.

At the 2023 Conservative Party Conference in October, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stood up and scrapped HS2 north of Birmingham, to both Crewe and Manchester. A devastated Chief Executive of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership Henri Murrison pointed out that this would ensure the northern economy would be smaller in 20 years than it is now. How supremely ironic it was that Sunak had been introduced to the party faithful by his wife with the words: “I know you will always do what’s best for the long term, Rishi, even when that means difficult decisions.”

Words fail me.

In such an acrimonious war of words and ideas, along a very lengthy front, with many points of disagreement and conflict, it is all too easy to lose sight of some real fundamentals amidst the smoke and noise of relentless battle. Here’s the one for me we must keep sight of.

“Scrapping Phase 2A makes no sense whatsoever.”

On November 8th, the Green Signals presentation team – Richard Bowker CBE and me – were invited to sit as part of a five-member panel to give evidence to the powerful and influential Transport Select Committee, chaired by Iain Stewart MP. It was a salutary experience because, for me, a fundamental which emerged to really hit me hard was about the future of the innocuous-sounding ‘Phase 2A’ of HS2. It is not quite right to state – as everyone tends to do –  that HS2 ‘has been scrapped north of Birmingham.’ Because there is a 36-miles or so extension north of Birmingham, which leads to a building site in a field near Lichfield, where HS2 had started to construct Handsacre Junction. This had been one of the new railway’s connections to the ‘classic’ West Coast Main Line.

Handsacre is some 40 miles south of the very important passenger hub of Crewe, with its equally important very large Basford Hall freight yards, some distance south of the station, on the western flank of the WCML.

Originally, Handsacre Junction would have connected the new HS2, coming in from the east, to the WCML fast lines, in order to give maximum capacity to run the maximum number of trains, with minimum impact and delay to either route, on and off the West Coast Main Line. North to Basford Hall and Crewe, has been one of the most congested sections on this crucial rail artery for several decades already.

That’s why the Strategic Rail Authority had sought to include a Stafford cut-off (or bypass) in the massively disruptive and expensive West Coast Route Modernisation but because the scheme was still at the early phase of design had been unable to secure funding for it in the Regulator’s Quinquennial Review of 2003. Scroll forward more than a decade and the Stafford bypass emerged yet again as HS2’s Phase 2A, designed to avoid the congestion north of Handsacre by running express traffic directly from Birmingham to Crewe. And when you consider there were recently the thick end of 50 trains a day between Euston and Manchester, you get a very clear picture of what ‘released capacity’ really means.

For freight, this released capacity promised a new dawn. With HS2 Phases 1 and 2A taking ALL high speed passenger traffic directly from Euston to Crewe without going anywhere near the WCML, a booming freight market was ‘revving up’ to take advantage of a congestion-free railway all the way from Wembley to Basford Hall. The HS2 connection at Crewe was to the north, between Basford Hall and Crewe station, meaning a clear run for freight on the WCML all the way from Wembley to Crewe. Throw in intermodal traffic joining the WCML from both Southampton and Felixstowe and the prospects were mouth-watering.  The logistics industry is – or at least was –  already planning to invest very significantly in terminals and warehouses along the route to service what would have been massive demand for many extra services. Net Zero here we come.

But the loss of Phase 2A utterly destroys these prospects and major benefits.  Now all the high speed passenger traffic which would have bypassed this horribly congested piece of railway will join the WCML at Handsacre Junction. There is, even today, only very marginal capacity for possibly a couple of extra trains north of Handsacre, over the restrictive Colwich Junction / Shugborough / Stafford section, to Basford Hall. With Phase 2A gone and all HS2 trains destined to join the WCML at Handsacre, there will be NO capacity for ANY extra freight over this already congested section. Zero. With Phase 2A the freight industry was looking at doubling freight by rail.

Scrapping Phase 2A makes no sense whatsoever.

But it gets worse. Once Phase 2A received legislative approval the entirely reasonable decision was taken to remove the costs of a large, high capacity junction at Handsacre where HS2 joined the fast lines on the WCML. After all, all northbound traffic on HS2 would in future be travelling via Phase 2A directly to Crewe – so Handscare Junction was pared back so HS2 joined on the slow lines.

Now that Phase 2A has been scrapped, all HS2 traffic will use that reduced capacity low speed junction at Handsacre, severely restricting its capacity. It is understood that the powers to build the fast line connection at Handsacre were relinquished when the Phase 2A Act received Royal Assent so not only do we now have to work out how to get the powers back as well as acquire the land to build it, there will be the cost of probably several hundred million pounds to completely redesign the junction for a second time. Yes, really.

It could not be a bigger shambles.

The onward costs in terms of lost opportunity and prosperity for the people around Crewe and points north runs into billions of pounds.

Professor Andrew McNaughton, HS2’s Technical Director from 2009-2017: “Phase 1 releases capacity to enable growth of housing and jobs – prosperity – in the Milton Keynes Northampton Rugby region. Which is good. But the news to the Westminster bubble is… this is not the North. It does sweet nothing for the expansion of freight by rail on the country’s principal freight corridor, rejoining the WCML where there is no spare capacity.

Phase 2A bypasses all that and, in re-joining north of Basford Hall, opens the door to at least doubling freight by rail. This is a key point, HS2 not only tripled passenger capacity but provided a future for sustainable freight logistics. It would seem this government thinks there is an alternative future: sitting in a motorway traffic jam.”

He adds: “Also, remember HS2 has nearly three times the capacity in half the land take of a motorway.”

It is impossible to overstate the damage done to the north by the loss of Phase 2A alone – and that’s before we look at the alternatives that will now need to be considered (all of which will take time and money) to resolve the issues on the route to Manchester! If you still dispute this, look at Europe, where high speed rail has put crucial city regions just an hour so apart – sustainably.

The economic and social potential for the UK destroyed by Sunak’s political scrapping of Phase 2A is vast. The destruction of taxpayer value in the Prime Minister’s entirely politically-motivated and ill-thought out scrapping of HS2 north of Birmingham to Crewe and Manchester beggars belief. A 15-year (thus far) project which has enjoyed nearly two decades of cross-party Parliamentary support appears to have been trashed on Prime Ministerial whim alone. No wonder there’s talk of judicial review.

“It is impossible to overstate the damage done to the north by the loss of Phase 2A.”

Given the enormous potential for both passenger, freight and agglomeration development unlocked by Phase 2A alone, then this relatively easy-to-build, short 36-mile extension from Birmingham to Crewe must have a really juicy Cost:Benefit ratio. Tom Worsley, the former DfT ‘guru’ on benefit cost analysis made clear that working out that cost:benefit analysis would be relatively straightforward. But he equally made clear that he could not understand why it had not been done BEFORE deciding to cancel Phase 2A at least.

So, I have one question for Secretary of State for Transport Mark Harper and rail-hating Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

Given the massive impact of scrapping Phase 2A alone, why did you not do this analysis in advance of making this devastating decision?

Worse still is what Richard Bowker CBE – correctly in my view – identified as spite in the Government’s further stated wish to sell the land already acquired as quickly as possible – to prevent any politician of any political stripe reversing Sunak’s monumentally stupid decision to dump 2A.

Hopefully with time running out before the next General Election, there will be space and opportunity for powerful regional mayors like Birmingham’s Andy Street, Manchester’s Andy Burnham, Liverpool’s Steve Rotherham and Bradford’s Tracy Brabin to jointly support a campaign to salvage Phase 2A – because every one of their millions of inhabitants will benefit from the construction of that 36 mile HS2 extension from Birmingham to Crewe.

Saving 2A also enjoys the considerable advantages of being ‘ready to go’ – it is fully designed, it has the parliamentary powers required for construction to get under way and – crucially – it answers the problems that need fixing. The expression ‘no brainer’ springs to mind…

We deserve – and must have –  so much better than the current shower, with their endless party civil wars, self-serving bickering and inability to genuinely see the big picture and serve those who vote them into their positions of power.

Until such politicians come along, let’s buckle down and at the very least safeguard the route for HS2’s Phase 2A.

  • With thanks to Professor Andrew McNaughton and Richard Bowker CBE for assistance in researching and writing this opinion piece.