In his October announcement, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak described how the scheme no longer met the needs of the country, and proposed a string of alternative transport schemes that will be pursued in its place. However, and most critically, he also stated that HS2 trains would still serve Manchester, Liverpool and Scotland from Euston, running on the conventional network north of Birmingham.
Although the details are far from clear, the prospect of new HS2 trains on the congested section through the Trent Valley and on the routes to Manchester raises real concerns over future freight capacity and the ability to grow freight. For those of us in the rail freight community, the promise of HS2 was not so much about faster journeys but more about increased capacity. Moving passenger trains onto the HS2 infrastructure would free up paths on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) – paths which could then be used by freight trains.
The government has recognised that moving freight from road to rail is an important strategy in meeting Net Zero targets, but this decision has made growing rail freight volumes much more difficult. There is also the issue of investments already made in anticipation of the new capacity that was due to be released by HS2. All along the WCML new rail freight terminals and strategic rail freight interchanges are being created, and the freight operators have been investing in rolling stock, facilities and systems to support those. This is private sector money, often backed by overseas boardrooms, bringing much needed inward investment to the UK.
Those investors now face the real prospect of stranded assets if a way forward on capacity cannot be found, which will dampen their appetite for future investment, and risks the UK looking like a poor place to do business. So, government needs to take urgent action to restore investor confidence and rebuilt trust in its transport strategies.
More positively, government has published a list of schemes which it intends to deliver from the savings on HS2. The majority of these are not rail schemes, with potholes, buses and trams receiving substantial funding, but the inclusion of Ely and Haughley Junction upgrades is welcome news.
These schemes are critical for new freight flows from Felixstowe and also from north Thameside, and the project has been high up the list for delivery for some time. Yet whilst we are delighted to see these schemes included, the new trains which can benefit from this work are likely to have destinations in the Midlands, north west and Scotland and may well rely on WCML capacity to do so.
There are of course choices over the balance between HS2 and other passenger services, but even with the bare minimum levels, freight capacity would likely still be implicated. So, Network Rail and government need to urgently work to understand the timetable outcome of these choices and see how HS2 might be accommodated without detriment to other users of the network, or alternatively what upgrades will be necessary.
As the Prime Minister noted, governments have to make tough decisions when situations change, and this was no doubt a tough choice. Yet governments also have a responsibility to deal with the consequences of those choices in a way which is fair and equitable. This must be the focus of action now.
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