The HS2 debate reminds me a lot of Brexit. Some high-profile politicians and business leaders saying the High-Speed rail project is a good thing, many people struggling to see what benefit it would bring to their day-to-day lives.
Even some of those who support the idea privately admit that the case for HS2 isn’t cutting through, and opinions are becoming ever more divided. Here’s what it does - and doesn’t - mean for the North West.
Where does HS2 stop off in the North West?
Under the current plans, new HS2 stations will be built at Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Airport. The HS2 line will also run to Crewe and Wigan.
HS2 trains would also be able to run on existing track to Runcorn, Liverpool, Warrington, Preston and Lancaster. This would cut journey times to these stations.
What’s in it for commuters who don’t go up and down to London?
The argument goes that a new high-speed line would free up the existing track for more passenger services and freight. So, for example, it would be possible to run more trains from Blackpool to Preston, or Macclesfield to Manchester - because long-distance trains wouldn’t be getting in the way.
The wider economic argument from Northern leaders is that a high-speed connection would encourage businesses based in London and the Midlands to see the North as an easier investment opportunity. The Government’s inquiry reportedly says ‘further work’ is needed to assess HS2’s impact on the northern economy.
But what we really want is better East-West links?
The Government has already committed to building parts of ’Northern Powerhouse Rail’, which would connect Liverpool directly with Manchester and Leeds.
As well as building a high-speed line between cities, it would mean more space on the existing lines for commuter services - for example, between Warrington and Liverpool or Manchester and Huddersfield.
Northern Powerhouse Rail has been designed to connect with HS2 - in places it uses part of the HS2 track, and it relies on stations being upgraded in the way they would be under the HS2 plans.
In theory, Northern Powerhouse Rail could exist without HS2. But it would cost more (because you’d still have to build some of the HS2 infrastructure), it would take longer to deliver (existing plans would have to be redrawn) and it could even result in a cut to the number of services going North-South.
Transport for the North say it is ‘not a case of either or’ - the North should be able to have both HS2 and NPR.
So how much does HS2 cost?
When it was given the go-ahead in 2012, the estimated cost for HS2 was £33bn. That rose to £56bn, in 2015, when a more detailed analysis was done.
It’s now being reported that there is a ‘considerable risk’ the project will cost £106bn. That budget is spread over decades, not spent all at once. For context, the NHS budget is £130bn per year.
What other consequences might there be?
There are long-standing concerns about the environmental impact of building the HS2 track. Last week The Wildlife Trusts put out a report claiming that HS2, as it is currently planned, will cause the ‘permanent loss of nature’ - putting some species and habitats at risk, and damaging protected sites including ancient woodland. The report looked at all the sites within 500m of the proposed scheme.
HS2 say the report is ‘inaccurate and misleading’ and point to their plans to mitigate the environmental impact. They also say that getting people out of cars and onto trains will actually help wildlife, by helping to slow down climate change.
What’s the Oakervee Review and what does it say?
The Oakervee Review was commissioned by Boris Johnson’s Government to look into ‘whether and how’ HS2 should proceed.
It’s not yet been published, but a version leaked to the press says that work on phase 2b (to Manchester and Leeds) should be paused for six months, to investigate if it could be a mix of conventional and high-speed lines.
This has led to accusations from politicians including Andy Burnham that the southern section will be ‘gold-plated’, while the North gets ‘a second class service’.
The Greater Manchester mayor says he accepts that savings need to be made on HS2 but, argues that savings should be made all the way down the line, not just on the Northern sections.