I was interested to read Delyth Jewell’s piece in Best of Bylines bemoaning the apparent syphoning off of funding from Wales to be spent on HS2. I must take issue with the assertion that “HS2 was never going to benefit Wales, and no distortion or trick can change that fact”.
The author states that “HS2 is an England-only project, aimed at improving England’s railways”, and “London is yet again benefiting from high-speed railways, in Wales we have to make do with Victorian infrastructure”. The Great Western main line has been resignalled and electrified and to my mind this is equivalent to terming the 787 Dreamliner aircraft ‘Victorian technology’, since after all it has its roots in the work of the Wright Brothers.
The internal geography and mountainous terrain of Central Wales in particular means that north-south links, both road and rail, must cross the border into England. In the context of the Welsh rail network this creates a number of ‘gateway’ stations, all in England, upon which the Welsh network must rely. The most obvious of these are Bristol (both Parkway and Temple Meads), Crewe, Birmingham New Street, and Manchester Piccadilly.
The last three of these would be directly relieved by HS2 if the north west branch is ever built. This would create masses of extra capacity to allow for a greater frequency of and more reliable trains to and from Welsh destinations such as Holyhead and Aberystwyth. Presently trains to the latter destination are limited not just by the single line sections of the Cambrian Line but also the congested Wolverhampton to Birmingham line.
Through Aberystwyth to Euston trains were withdrawn by British Rail in 1991, not least because scarce paths on the West Coast main line are more profitably used for services to Manchester, Liverpool, and Glasgow, diverting these services to HS2 metals would create capacity for both these and additional Holyhead to Euston services. Similarly, there were proposals for journey time improvements to Nottingham to Birmingham services using HS2 tracks, which would have a beneficial effect on journeys such as Cardiff to Nottingham.
I can accept that publicity both by and on behalf of HS2 Ltd regarding the benefits of the HS2 project has been very poor but, as I wrote for North West Bylines, the true benefit of HS2 is actually the capacity released on the existing network. The high speed design is essential to this as, had the HS2 network in full been built, it would have been three new railways for the price of one. Ironically this capacity release, as the single largest benefit that HS2 in full would have conferred, is not incorporated into the official cost-benefit analysis of the scheme.
The author opines: “It is maddening to think of what we could have done with the billions we’ve been cheated out of”. Yet the actual cost of HS2 both as a proportion of rail spending and of transport as a whole, not to mention road schemes, is actually quite small.
Figures for HS2 construction bandied around of ‘£100 billion’ are misleading, as infrastructure projects are not funded in this way. The headline figure would be spent across 20-25 years and borrowed by the state on an annual basis depending on the complexity of construction work in a given year. Not only is there not a pot of money to free up by not constructing HS2, but it’s money in addition to the regular rail budget, not instead of.
Finally, there is the question of the climate emergency. Road traffic is the largest source of carbon emissions in the country, and electric vehicles are at best only a partial solution to this. Without HS2 we won’t have the rail capacity to encourage people out of their cars and onto green forms of public transport. HS2 should have been the start of a network of high speed lines serving all parts of the country, including Wales directly in due course. If tackling climate change isn’t a benefit to Wales I await with interest the author’s assessment of what is!
Bury, Greater Manchester