The Finsbury Park Fiasco – A taste of things to come with HS2.

Yesterday, we saw how the Department for Transport and Network Rail can really shine when they put their minds to it, leaving thousands of passengers stranded for hours at Finsbury Park Station, as the result of Kings Cross being closed due to engineering work running over schedule.

With Kings Cross closed, passengers were encouraged to travel to Holloway to get their trains north from Finsbury Park, which of was the second mistake from our rail mandarins. The simple fact is that Kings Cross has 12 overland platforms, whilst Finsbury Park only has 6. As such, it was always clear that train turnaround times were going to be much longer, and given that, passengers for many destinations could have been advised to travel from Euston and change at places like Tamworth, Birmingham or even Manchester to get to Scotland and the Eastern side of the England, with some of those trainsets being extended. Whilst the journeys would have taken longer, that extra time would have been nothing compared to the time people had to wait in the cold on the streets of North London before getting anywhere near the station. If enough passengers could have been diverted to Euston to start their journey on West Coast routes, the number of trains needed from Finsbury Park would have been reduced, and therefore the train turnaround time would have been quicker too.

The first mistake of course was to expect the engineering works to have been completed on time and not to have this simple contingency in place. As someone who left London via Finsbury Park Station on the day of the London Bombings in July 2005, it seemed amazing that this situation, one that there should have been at least some prior inkling of, was being handled worse than that day, when of course both Kings Cross and Euston were in lockdown.

So I’m sure the question you may now be asking is what does this have to do with HS2? Well of course the knee-jerk reaction we have seen from those supporting HS2 is of course that this is just another example of why HS2 is needed, that patch-and-mend does not work and the usual old guff. This is of course the usual spiel, a sentence that in isolation to the uninitiated may seem like it makes sense, but ignores what HS2 actually means.

The most obvious thing to mention is that HS2 is being planned by the same calibre of people,  and indeed many of the same people, who yesterday once again demonstrated that they couldn’t organise a piss-up in a buffet car.  Their arrogance that everything will be OK is typified by Sir David Higgins, who when told by the Major Projects Authority that they have 75 complex unanswered questions about HS2, dismisses them, and says it’s only really 10.

The real lesson that the Finsbury Park fiasco should show is what happens if you reduce the number of platforms at a terminus station, because if Kings Cross hadn’t been closed yesterday, merely scaled down from its’ normal 12 platforms to the 6 that Finsbury Park has, the same thing would have happened, with the only difference being that at least more people would have been queueing for hours inside a station, opposed to outside of it. This impact is the one most ignored when talking about HS2, that while Euston may have 18 platforms, HS2 will mean the closure of about a third of them, not for a day, but for the best part of a decade.

Whilst no-one knows exactly what is happening with the Euston rebuild, as even HS2 Ltd have admitted that the latest proposal is ‘not fundable’ and ‘has no business case’, it’s not what happens to the station that is really the problem for ten years worth of rail passengers, it’s the fact that all the tracks into the station will have to be moved to accommodate HS2.

To get around that, there are these options; you accept much longer turnaround times for trains to get in and out of the station, the train services have to be cut during the rebuild, or the trains or passengers have to go elsewhere. HS2 Ltd and Network Rail have come to this realisation all too late, with the DfT saying a couple of months ago that they were looking into diverting commuter services to Tring onto Crossrail, but the problem there is that the two systems are not compatible, with one using Direct Current and the other Alternating Current. The problem with this of course, and other potential re-routing options such as sending more trains from the West Midlands down the Chiltern Line into Marylebone, Paddington, or onto the new North London Line at Northolt, is that they would help demonstrate that the fundamental argument for HS2, that it is needed for capacity, is totally false.

It is true that some of the other alternatives to HS2 include work on the railways, but whilst the DfT have been trying to make out these will lead to ’14 years of weekend closures’, they miss off the fact almost all of it can be done, like Great Western Electrification has been done, over night when it will cause no disruption at all. The problem is that those in favour of HS2 have completely ignored the disruption it would cause, not only to the rail network, but to the roads as well, and that is before you look at the fact the alternatives are a fraction of the cost and deliver more benefits to more people more quickly. The one thing the alternatives to HS2 would most certainly not do is mess up a London terminus for ten years.

In herein lies the real problem, that HS2 and indeed the railways in general, are being managed by people with the foresight and flexibility as Tsar Nicholas II, and who are equally unable to learn from their mistakes. Because if there is anything that the Finsbury Park Fiasco has taught us about HS2, it is that no-one should have any faith in the work being completed on time.

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