This week, The Daily Telegraph reported that rail tracks closed in the Beeching Axe will reopen thanks to HS2. The rail line in question is part of the Great Central Railway from Quainton to Brackley, but there was just one problem with saying HS2 will ‘reopen’ this line; it never actually closed, though it probably will as a result of HS2.
Whilst the furthest you can currently go as a passenger on Great Central is Aylesbury, goods trains still use that route. Two trains per day currently take waste for landfill from the London Borough of Hillingdon to landfill in Calvert, before trains go up to a remnant of the east-west ‘Varsity’ line to perform a three point turn before heading back. HS2 will effect this operation at both ends, and it is looking increasingly likely that the post-HS2 solution will be to make these transfers by road.
Whilst The Daily Telegraph mistakenly thinking the line is closed could be excusable, it was a view shared by HS2 Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Department for Transport when they first announced the Stage 1 plans in March 2010. The fact that DfT mandarins had to be told by local residents that a rail line they had classified as disused was actually still in use, is symptomatic of the lack of knowledge displayed by the increasingly bloated HS2 Ltd quango.
The worst part of this disjointed thinking is that without HS2 taking it over, Great Central could have a great future, providing an alternative route from Milton Keynes to London. With plans to reopen the East-West line, it would be simple to run trains along that line from Milton Keynes, which would then connect with Great Central and run into Marylebone via Aylesbury. Such a project would cheaply deliver the thing which HS2 does not, interconnectivity and local benefits.
The current plan is not for HS2 to use the Grand Central trackbed, but to skirt around it, constantly crossing the line, as HS2 is being engineered for a track speed on 250mph, meaning it has to be much straighter and wider than previous lines.
There are many other places where pro-HS2 spin has been geared to promote the project as ‘using old lines’, the most notable example on Stage 1 of the route, being the village of Burton Green. Burton Green lies on what was the Kenilworth-Berkswell cord, a line used to bypass Coventry station. This line was closed by Beeching in the same sort of flawed economics that is being used now to justify HS2. As the line was a four-mile bypass and it had no stations, it created no fare revenue, so as far as Beeching was concerned, that made it worthless. This flawed logic was what lead to the closure of heavily-used stations in seaside resorts. The stations were used by people going on holiday who bought return tickets when they set off from their home town, so as the resort towns did not create revenue from outgoing passengers, they were closed.
Burton Green, or more rightly the Cromwell Lane Bridge over the former line, which as a footpath is now known as the Kenilworth Greenway, was seen by HS2 Ltd engineers as the ‘eye of the needle’ they needed to thread the line through to reach Birmingham Airport whilst causing the minimum number home demolitions. The problem was that they had failed to realise that HS2 would be just a little bit wider than the old track, with the construction footprint being around ten times the current land use. While HS2 Ltd have been exceptionally coy about the number of homes which would be at risk, residents, using HS2 Ltds own data estimate around 40 houses are under threat.
The bottom line is that behind the spin of ‘re-using old lines’, only a quarter of a mile of the former line, the middle of the four mile footpath will be used, and it is the location which for Burton Green causes more devastation than any other option.
Now that Stage 2 has been announced, we are seeing this problem being repeated. In the spin factory, the Culcheth Linear Park, is another ‘former rail line which will be reopened’, but the reality is HS2 would simply cut across it twice, making it useless.
Another town which will have devastation of Burton Green proportions is Killamarsh in Derbyshire. Again, around 40 properties will be at risk as HS2 crosses a former railway line on the site of the former station. The wooden station building was recently sold for £1 and had been taken down for restoration and rebuilding as a museum, but that project like the one to reopen the Chesterfield Canal is now under doubt.
In this respect, HS2 will do exactly what Beeching did, devastate communities with dodgy economics, and fail to provide local benefits or connectivity, whilst deciding that the only thing worth having is faster inter-city travel.