Today Michael Heseltine has come out strongly in favour of HS2: he’s already been interviewed by the Today program on Radio 4 and will be delivering a speech to the Royal Town Planning Institute this evening. Heseltine is no convert to high speed rail, approving the route of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (now HS1) under Thatcher, and his support for HS2 has been evident since 2010.
It’s worth noting that the route for HS1 which he approved was not any of the suggested British Rail routes , but one developed after their flaws had become evident.
Heseltine’s support for HS2 is based on outdated thinking and assumptions about the project which are simply incorrect.
He is due to say “It’s all about drawing together our economy as a whole as well as improving our access to the enlarged, and enlarging, home market of Europe.”
However HS2 will not link well to Europe. The current proposal is to use the North London Line for trains going from HS2 to HS1, but this line is already heavily used, both by freight and local stopping traffic. At most there is space for 3 HS2 trains an hour, trying to fit in round the existing users.
What’s more telling is that when Heseltine approved HS1, the expectation was that Eurostar trains would be able to use the North London Line to access the West Coast Main Line: that proved impossible due to engineering constraints.
Heseltine talks about property development at Kings Cross and St Pancras. However HS2 Ltd massively underestimated the scale of the work they would need at Euston, both in financial terms and the length of time to rebuild it. Instead of rebuilding Euston, the current HS2 vision of Euston has been described as a “lean-to bolted onto a shed”, and foregoes the chance for a Kings Cross type regeneration scheme for decades.
The thing is, Michael Heseltine’s vision of the future is rooted in the past. He refers to “ladies and gentlemen of the slide rules”, but slide rules are now museum pieces, replaced decades ago by electronic calculators. HS2 bypasses the fastest growing cities in the UK, like Milton Keynes, and uses the same stations in Birmingham and London – at Curzon Street and Euston – which were opened in time for the coronation of Queen Victoria.
Michael Heseltine says history will judge us if we don’t build HS2. But if it’s built, the kinds of questions history will ask include:
- Why did they dismiss the effects of videoconferencing?
- Why did they build HS2 through so many sensitive and irreplaceable wildlife sites?
- Why did they not include a direct link to Heathrow or whatever airport site is recommended by the Davies commission?
- Why did they choose such a limiting connection to HS1?
- Why did they ignore the possibility of driverless cars?
- Why did they base so much of the case for HS2 on minutes saved on a train, when people use technology to make travel time productive?
- Why did they build a long distance railway when long distance travel was falling?