Rail consultant Simon Kendler shares his personal view on the importance of HS2 for the Midlands and the North…

The benefits of HS2 for the Midlands and the North are clear, now the task at hand is to ensure they are all captured.

The verdict is in. The project is green lit and Notice to Proceed has been issued on the largest infrastructure project in Europe. Once complete, HS2 will bring economic growth to the Midlands and northern regions of the UK and provide a vital increase in capacity for Britain’s railways by diverting the fastest trains off the existing network. For example, there will be increased capacity and relief in areas such as the southern end of the West Coast Main Line (WCML), Europe’s busiest mixed-traffic main line which is currently bursting at the seams. HS2 will also power the £3.5 billion Midlands Engine plan to transform the region’s rail network.

As soon as HS2 opens it is planned that high speed trains will start running between London and towns and cities to the north including Birmingham, Crewe, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester and Preston which will also free up extra space on the existing rail network.

According to HS2, the scheme will offer some of the lowest carbon emissions per passenger kilometre – seven times less than passenger cars and 17 times less than domestic air travel. HS2 will be a cleaner, greener way to travel offering some of the lowest carbon emissions per passenger kilometre, significantly less than cars and domestic air travel which will support the transition to a net-zero carbon UK economy. It will take cars and lorries off the road and reduce the need for domestic air travel which will lead to a reduction in carbon emissions and improve air quality.

Not only does infrastructure investment help the economy by providing jobs and tax revenue but in the case of HS2 it also comes with a raft of wider environmental and economic benefits. The project already supports over 7,000 roles including one hundred apprentices and is expected to support 30,000 jobs during the peak of construction including 2,000 apprentices for Phase One.

Greengauge21 estimate that the full HS2 project will create the equivalent of 89,000 full-time jobs over a 60-year time period. This will result in higher employment, a more highly trained workforce and career progression which means more tax revenue, more disposable income that spread benefits to other businesses and industries. This can close key skills gaps, support supply chains and boost regional economies across the board.

Railways, like the ancient trade routes and waterways before them, allow goods and people to move around. However, the railways have done this at increasing speeds, shrinking continents, countries and regions as towns, cities and economies grow. Time is money as the saying goes.

Clear examples include Japan and France. The Japanese Government originally conceived of a high-speed rail line as early as 1939. Japan entered the post-war period needing to rebuild where its main line railway network was narrow-gauge, slow and congested. As Japan’s industry and economy grew, the economic incentive was found to build a new high-speed rail line to relieve the busiest main lines and speed up journeys between Japan’s major cities. The first Shinkansen line opened in time for the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 between Tokyo and Osaka. It reached Fukuoka, 600 miles from Tokyo, by 1975 and set a standard that many nations emulated in the following decades.

Closer to home, Lille in northern France had suffered from the decline of major industries in the post-war years. The Channel Tunnel project led to the development of new high-speed lines to connect the tunnel to Paris and Brussels. Lille was chosen and its newfound position as an international high-speed rail hub was the catalyst for new retail, business and commercial regeneration that helped revive the city’s economy. Over the channel, economic benefits were also felt in Ashford when Eurostar services started calling there in 1996. Ashford has been described as a beacon within the relatively stagnant economy of East Kent in a study by lecturers at Canterbury Christ Church University, with increased investment, new businesses, and population growth faster than any other district in the county.

This was all achieved before High Speed 1 (HS1) was built. From 2009, domestic high-speed services began running alongside international rail services along the route serving Kent’s major towns. On celebrating the 10th anniversary of these services in 2019, Ashford MP Damian Green described HS1 as being, ‘the single biggest beneficial change to Ashford’s prosperity’. A report commissioned by HS1 and Visit Kent in 2017 found that the line has added more than £311 million to the Kent economy and supported almost 6,000 jobs. Across different scales and metrics it can be demonstrated that high speed rail investment delivers real benefits.

The story of why Britain didn’t get onboard with high speed rail is long and complicated but culminated in a very British compromise: the multi-billion pound, disruptive and protracted WCML upgrade between 1998 and 2008. This cut journey times and offered regular interval services to cities along the route. Modal shift to rail took place as the services gained popularity and decimated the domestic flight market between London and Manchester. However, to fit in all those fast services intermediate stations lost out.

We have got the most out of the WCML but before the upgrade was even finished it was recognised that it wasn’t enough. Patronage of Britain’s railways has doubled and in some regions tripled since the early 1990s; however they have now become a victim of their own success. This has not been limited to London and the South East as the increased congestion and overcrowding seen on the approaches to stations in Manchester and Leeds can attest.

The economic benefits of HS2 are already being felt. Stafford has moved forward development plans now that it has been confirmed HS2 trains will directly serve the town. In the West Midlands business confidence has surged and investment increased as HSBC has moved its headquarters to Birmingham quoting HS2 as being a contributory factor. This has also spurred redevelopment and extensions of the region’s tram network. Leeds could follow suit as Channel 4 has moved 200 staff from London. HS2 could attract investment and help deliver the rapid transit system the city deserves and finally lose the moniker of being the largest city in Western Europe without a rapid transit system.

The COVID crisis has given us the space to re-assess our working lives, our travel patterns and the opportunities this presents. Local is good and by providing green infrastructure for walking, cycling, and rapid transit combined with ‘London-style’ rail services we can strengthen our towns and cities. This can relieve the overheating London and South East region, taking pressure off the housing market and transport systems. This also demonstrates that investment in HS2 is not mutually exclusive of investment in the existing rail network. Crossrail, Thameslink, the Ordsall Chord, the Trans-Pennine Route Upgrade, new train fleets and station openings continue alongside HS2. The Government’s Transport Decarbonisation Plan suggests more rail investment, electrification and re-openings to come that HS2 will compliment as its phases open up capacity on the rail network.

This all culminates in addressing the Government’s levelling up agenda, the climate emergency and the new post-COVID paradigm. HS2 is not the solution, it is part of the solution. We have to look forwards to address the challenges of a post-pandemic recession and the uncertainty surrounding Brexit. Infrastructure investment is a good place to start but it must be sustainable. Active and public transport infrastructure, combined with investment and planning incentives can boost regional economies, relieve the strain on London and ultimately benefit the whole of UK plc.

Simon Kendler is a rail consultant, specialising in operations, planning and rolling stock with an academic background in urban planning, sustainability and transport. He studied a Masters in Town and Country Planning in the UK and a Masters in Sustainable Cities whilst based in Denmark. Aside from his consultancy work he is actively involved with STEM outreach and the Young Rail Professionals network where he is Chair of the London & South East Committee.

You can follow Simon on Twitter @SimonZev and contact him at simon.kendler@youngrailpro.com