Sloth-like behaviour on high speed rail

This was originally published as welcome to another fun-packed year in HS2 Land, part 5 on 18th January. For the rest of Peter’s series, please see his blog, HS2 and the environment.

The decision-making wheels on the HS2 machine sure do grind slowly. We appear to have a number of what the former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, termed “known unknowns” (see footnote 1) that have all been locked in a box and labelled “not to be opened until after the general election”. We can only hope that once that magic date has passed whoever inherits the poisoned chalice of HS2 will open that box and end the uncertainty (perhaps, even, by cancelling the whole sorry mess). However, if the Government – and that particularly applies in the case of the new government – is at all serious about HS2, then surely all of these known unknowns must be elevated to “known knowns” as soon as possible during 2015.

One decision/announcement that we can be fairly sure will emerge during 2015 is the second additional provision for Phase 1 (AP2). Unless I missed an earlier announcement, the acknowledgement that HS2 Ltd had been working on a second additional provision first came from the lips of James Strachan QC when he gave his introduction to the petition deposited by Burton Green Parish Council on the morning of Tuesday 6th January 2015 (see footnote 2).

We know, because Mr Strachan told the HS2 Select Committee then, that AP2 will include a new design for the Burton Green cut-and-cover tunnel “to improve the effects on Burton Green”. I would expect, although there has been no confirmation of this as far as I am aware, that AP2 will also cover the changes that have been announced to the HS2 design in the area near Lichfield, Staffordshire. There may, of course, be other design changes that will be included in AP2, but here we are straying into Mr Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” territory.

Once AP2 has been deposited in Parliament the supplementary environmental information accompanying it will be subjected to public consultation and Parliament will appoint a technical assessor to summarise the comments received, as was done with AP1. The placing of AP2 before Parliament will also trigger a new petitioning period for those “directly and specially affected” by its provisions. So those residents who are so minded will have some homework to do at some stage this year, and we can expect that the HS2 Select Committee will have to add a new tranche of petitions to its workload.

Important as AP2 is to those who will be affected by its changes, it is comparatively small beer compared to the major known unknown on the Government’s to do list, which is an announcement to proceed with Phase 2 and the route that it will take. At the time of posting this blog, it is only a few days short of a year since the public consultation on the proposed line of route closed; the comparable period for Phase 1 between the end of the consultation and the announcement was about five-and-a-half months. Those waiting on tenterhooks for a decision were originally told that it would come by the end of 2014. The Government website indicates a remarkable lack of urgency in this matter:

“Any further announcements and decisions on the Phase Two route are currently expected to be made in 2015 but could come later.”

I think what lies behind this sloth-like behaviour by the Department for Transport (DfT) may be a reluctance to introduce a Phase 2 hybrid Bill into Parliament whilst the House of Commons is still struggling with the Phase 1 legislation and a realisation that Royal Assent for the Phase 1 hybrid Bill is not going to be anytime soon, but that is just my theory. There is also, of course, the state of government decision-making paralysis that seems to proceed any general election to account for the delay.

Now whilst I can see that the links to Manchester and Leeds may not be the most urgent matter in the mind of the Transport Secretary – after all the in-service timescales are way beyond the thinking horizon of any politician – I would have supposed that Sir David Higgins upped the ante on at least the section of Phase 2 up to Crewe by proposing, in his HS2 Plus report, that the planned date for the provision of HS2 services to a “new regional transport hub at Crewe” should be accelerated and suggesting that this “could be completed by 2027, six years earlier than planned”.

In his opening speech for the Second Reading debate of the HS2 Phase 1 hybrid Bill, the Transport Secretary welcomed Sir David Higgins proposal and said that he was “commissioning HS2 Ltd to undertake the work to allow it to be considered in detail” (see footnote 3), but he did not set any timescale for this work to be completed and reported on.

The possible acceleration of the timescale for services to Crewe has led, in some quarters, to the notion that Phase 2 may be split into Phase 2a (Staffordshire to Crewe) and Phase 2b (the completion of linking to Manchester and Leeds), and be covered by two separate legislative processes. This concept has been somewhat reinforced by the recent launch of a consultation on safeguarding directions for the Fradley to Crewe route section, which closed this month.

So at least someone in the DfT has enough of a sense of urgency about the HS2 route to Crewe to want to make sure that no one builds a new hotel right in its proposed path, even if the publishing of detailed safeguarding maps for a route that hasn’t been confirmed yet seems somewhat irregular.

So if there is enough certainty about at least Phase 2a to issue safeguarding directives, then why are we still waiting for an announcement, any sort of announcement, about Phase 2?

Speculation on that topic will have to wait until my next posting.

(To be continued …)


  1. “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”
  2. See paragraphs 26 to 35 of the HS2 Select Committee (uncorrected) transcript for the morning of Tuesday 6th January 2015.
  3. See column 30 of the House of Commons Official Report for Monday 24th March 2014.
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