Government has got High Speed Two (HS2) wrong. As one of the architects of Britain’s first high speed railway, HS1 – connecting London with the Channel Tunnel – I am in a unique position to write this. Whatever the truth behind the rumours and denials that the project is to be abandoned, the focus must now shift to how a high speed rail network can save the vision of delivering a viable, affordable and integrated railway.
The success of what is now High Speed One (HS1) comes from our adoption of what became known as the Kent Principles, which guided our decision to choose the route for the railway. In seeking an appropriate balance between speed, cost and environmental impact, we twinned the new line with motorway corridors wherever possible, minimised crossings of areas of outstanding natural beauty, and tunnelled through urban areas below existing transport corridors.
We also connected the high speed with the classic rail network to enable through running of regional services, and provided intermediate stations to maximise benefits to areas affected by the new line. As it stands, HS2 simply ignores these clear principles. Instead it adopts the same discredited engineering-led solution pursued by British Rail in the 1980s, until our successful private sector challenge led to the current HS1 route.
HS2 was flawed from the start, driven by the perceived need for a straight line between London and Birmingham to maximise speed – an unprecedented 400 kilometres per hour – and a predetermined new station at Old Oak Common in west London.
Subsequently, a bad scheme has been made worse. The incoming coalition required HS2 to connect with HS1 and Heathrow – two vital links inexplicably missing from the original proposal. However, rather than a proper reassessment, substandard retrofits are proposed: a single-track connection between HS2 and HS1, shared with the already congested North London Line; and a branch line to Heathrow. While the former is proposed to be included in phase one, the latter is left to phase two (perhaps by the 2030s, if a viable business case can be made).
Our European competitors gaze in astonishment as we condemn Heathrow – the world’s busiest international airport, and undoubtedly the one most in need of an integrated transport strategy – to increasing isolation. By perpetuating a rail-centric silo approach, HS2 prevents high-speed rail from replacing short-haul flights releasing much needed capacity and resilience at Heathrow. HS2 not only ignores the experience of HS1, but also the proven success of integrating aviation and rail strategy, as seen at Schiphol, Frankfurt and Charles de Gaulle.
When we challenged British Rail’s proposals all those years ago, the government rightly concluded that a proper assessment of all route options was required to allow the costs and benefits of each to be determined. This has simply not happened with HS2. It is extraordinary that the government should have determined its choice of alignment for HS2 before consultation even starts on the UK’s aviation strategy. They are inseparable. Unless they are matched, HS2 will remain a project under siege.
The flaws in the current silo approach to air and rail are clear. If Heathrow is ultimately replaced by a new airport to the east of London, it is unimaginable that it should rely on the proposed single-track HS2-HS1 rail link to connect with the UK’s regions. Alternatively, if Heathrow is to remain the UK’s hub airport, where is the logic in HS2 bypassing the airport by less than 10 miles?
Heathrow is a critical economic asset and HS2 is the largest public investment ever contemplated in a single project. These facts alone should give government pause for thought. It is simply essential to the UK’s economic prosperity that we urgently develop a sustainable integrated transport strategy, and abandon, once and for all, the disastrous silo planning which has condemned the UK to increasingly substandard infrastructure.
Mark Bostock was project leader for Arup’s initiative to secure the right line for the Channel Tunnel rail link – now HS1. He is a consultant to Heathrow Hub, which proposes an alternative route for HS2, which directly connects with Heathrow and follows existing transport corridors.