Mark Barry provides a route map to ensure Wales does not get left behind by yesterday’s HS2 decision
Yesterday Transport Secretary Justine Greening confirmed that HS2, the new high speed rail line from London to Birmingham, will follow pretty much the same route as previously announced, albeit with some additional tunnelling to soften the environmental impact in north west London and the Chilterns.
However, there will be no immediate link to Heathrow and no interchange with the Great Western Main Line at Heathrow – although the Department of Transport claim the proposed Old Oak Common interchange will deliver this functionality. The cost of the first phase to Birmingham is estimated at £17 billion, with another £15 billion required to take the line in a second phase to Leeds and Manchester. Phase 1 is expected to open in 2026 with construction to start in 2017.
So what is in this for Wales? Well not a lot really, apart from the opportunity of such a major investment in the south-east, together with enhancing the competitiveness of English cities. When complete, HS2 will make every major city in England, apart from Newcastle, closer to London than Cardiff in terms of rail travel time. Manchester will only be 1 hour and 13 minutes from Euston, whereas, even after the Great Western Main Line is electrified, Cardiff will still be 1 hour and 45 minutes from Paddington.
Does this matter? Of course it does. Over the next 20 years Cardiff wishes to develop a Central Business District based on financial services and will be dependent on a certain amount of foreign investment and relocation of companies from elsewhere in the UK, Europe and the World. If Cardiff, as it will be, is further away from London than its major competitor cities in England then it will be at a disadvantage.
What can we do to mitigate this situation? I have some suggestions:
Given that Welsh tax payers will contribute about £100 million a year for 15 years to build HS2, I suggest the UK government is obliged to fund the electrification of the entire south Wales rail network, which has a comparable and perhaps even better benefit-cost-ratio than HS2. Alternatively can we secure a Barnet consequential? This could be something for the Silk Commission to explore. To complete the job to electrify the Great Western Mail Line to Swansea and all the valley routes, will cost between £4-500 million. We must keep up the pressure to secure this outcome. After all, the UK government has a stated aim of rebalancing the UK economy – an economy that includes Wales and its transport infrastructure. With a fully electrified south Wales rail network the delivery of a more comprehensive South Wales Metro is much more likely.
Even though the HS2 route will not go via Heathrow, we need to push hard to see the proposed Heathrow Western Access scheme accelerated so that by 2020 it is possible to get a Heathrow Express train at Reading direct to Heathrow (Terminal 5). Whist not as strategically beneficial as the Heathrow Hub Ltd Scheme, nonetheless, it does provide for reduced journey times between Cardiff and Heathrow which will be of benefit to those “selling” the Cardiff central business district. Groups in support of this scheme include the Great Western Partnership which represents all the major local authorities, transport consortia and business groups along the Great Western line, from Slough to Swansea.
We must lobby hard and make the case for the economic importance of enhancing the services and capability of the Great Western Main Line, so that by the time the first phase of HS2 is open in 2026, it can deliver a Cardiff to London journey of 1 hour 20 minutes. This is possible on the current alignment with some engineering interventions and reduced stopping patterns and without the eye watering £32 billion required to deliver high speed rail to the north of England.
Finally, the M4 is an issue that won’t go away. We should follow up George Osborne’s Autumn Statement commitment to explore ways of funding an upgrade to this vital corridor for the Welsh economy.
I am disappointed the Westminster government has not really announced a UK-wide high speed rail strategy and network as it claims to have done. However, yesterday’s decision does clarify where we need to focus our efforts to ensure Wales does not get left behind by HS2.