Britain’s biggest rail controversy – with some solutions

hs2logofi - Britain's biggest rail controversy - with some solutions

There are many other undocumented downsides to HS2 with some being very serious indeed. This is an examination of some HS2 claims and their refutation. Ironically at the time I’d finished this new draft on HS2, Lord Berkeley had released a letter expressing his concerns on the Oakervee review and HS2 in general. Berkeley was one of the contributors to the Oakervee Report however in a tweet he sent on 2nd November 2019 some dissatisfaction was discerned in his role as deputy chair of the review panel.

I wrote the entire essay below before Lord Berkeley had issued his two page statement to Oakervee on the HS2 project. In terms of this letter being published today I am writing about this as a prologue to the remainder of my post.

As I have said elsewhere (as well as detailed in this latest post of mine) I do think there are issues with the claims related to HS2 and its these that I examine here, as well as a few ideas of my own.

One of the points being made in the midst of all this is why it was still being claimed HS2 would cost £52 billion as recently as July 2019 (when in fact it was approaching nearly 88 billion.) Lord Berkeley picks up on this point and says it looks like HS2 has already costed 221% over its estimates before a single bit of line is even built!

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HS2 costed as £55 billion in a recent parliamentary question – when in fact it had gone over £88 billion – before a single bit of line is even built! Source: Twitter

The Berkeley statement lending to the criticism of the HS2 project.

What follows is my text written before that statement was produced.

There’s so much about HS2, leaked Oakervee reports, costs, CO2, GHG, saving time, enabling more capacity on other lines, enabling a reduction in roads use, building a new high speed line will give three other main lines more capacity because trains on those lines can run closer together blah blah blah!

Its all very exciting. But there are a few problems. Its not just the expense. That will be huge, but HS2 will no doubt in my mind create an expense situation that is prohibitively enormous if we are to really get serious and use the new high speed railway as a means of sorting out transport problems.

Before we start let it be known I’m no railway engineer and no professional of any sort thus some of my ideas may be a little sketchy or short on detail, however what is happening here is that I am simply trying to give an alternative view in regards to HS2. Not only that I wish to bust some myths that are being touted in favour of HS2.

The myth of additional capacity post HS2:

One of the biggest arguments touted in favour of HS2 is there will be additional capacity on existing railways once most of the passenger flows have been moved over to HS2. Its a fantastic idea. Except this has major problems….

Most of the rail lines out of London are four tracked or more, which means the suburban sections have stopping trains and fast non-stopping trains because dedicated track is often used for these services. The big problem here is okay, we build HS2 and free up capacity on other lines. The problem is what I have just mentioned. Most of the fast tracks don’t have platforms for additional trains exploiting this so called surplus capacity to stop at (excepting at select major stations) – which means these stopping trains will still be tied to the slow lines – and invariably capacity increase wont be as great as is being made out. Try shoehorning extra stopping trains onto those limited capacity slow lines and you’ll soon see what I mean!

The problem exists on a lot of railway routes out of London. Fast lines with no stations/platforms and all the other trains shoehorned onto slow lines where all the stations/platforms are. It also happens to an extent on some other regional rail routes such as in Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

You see the problem. To exploit additional capacity that HS2 claims will come as a result of it means we also need additional stations/platforms as well as extra track and crossings to be able to exploit this surplus capacity!

Take the LNWR main lines (West Coast Main Lines) out of Euston (which HS2 will be ‘directly benefittting’) there will of course be more opportunity for additional trains to serve stations from Watford northwards to Hemel, Berkhamstead, Leighton Buzzard, Milton Keynes and Northampton. But that wont prevent the fact Overground/Bakerloo will still be needed as far as Harrow/Watford thus its not really any sort of major capacity increase.

Its sort of switching the musical chairs around a bit without actually getting the huge capacity that is being promised. The argument with HS2 is that it will enable fast trains to use its new lines whilst other lines take on more slower services more frequently – except as I have just pointed out – there is also capacity problems on those slow lines and the intermediate stations that are served en route by all modes – unless a way is sought to tackle this and that means money.

Yes more frequent slower trains (not even semi-fast but instead stopping at Queen’s Park, Wembley Central, Harrow & Wealdstone, Bushey, Watford Junction) will be possible but again its not exactly increasing capacity. If we put these rather slower trains on the fast lines in order to pump up ‘capacity’ these trains will be in the way of the Bletchley, Milton Keynes and Northampton expresses for example. Again the railway becomes ‘jack of all trades.’ It means essentially we are not getting the solutions that are sought.

What this means in my view is HS2 is immediately self-defeating beccause its not going to see that claim achieved – not without a lot more money. That means the total cost of the HS2 project will run into many more billions than the ever-increasing costs for its own high speed line.

There is of course the possibility more freight could be carried within the spare capacity on other lines as a result of HS2 but unless we make railways a more serious user of freight – which means a lot of changes too, many of which are beyond the current remit of the railways simply because perhaps 90% of the country’s goods/freight facilities have been closed.

To be able to achieve that we need more depots/distribution centres. It means more rail sidings, more junctions and so on. New depots for the freight trains to be stabled and serviced. Yes HS2 will allow more freight trains. But that’s exactly the problem – more trains without a portfolio so to speak!

These additional trains will suck up spare capacity so really there won’t be an overall improvement in the scheme of things. Not only that these freight trains will need to cross a lot of junctions/other lines because they are generally not going where the passenger trains go, so more freight trains means capacity tied up at strategic locations. The point is unless we are able to build a lot of ‘Acton fly-unders’ to mitigate the problems that will arise, we are asking for trouble.

EAJSXOjX4AEn7uK - Britain's biggest rail controversy - with some solutions

Major line upgrades will still be neccesssary. Source: Twitter

What that means unfortunately is unless we build more freight loading capacity (depots, yards, cranes, distribution warehouses) then any extra capacity on the railways isn’t immediately going to be useful. But on top of that, it too means additional costs, something HS2 isnt taking into account.

As well as the consideration of the above issues, let it be said if any additional passenger capacity were to be sought there’s also the planning required for new services. The training of drivers, staff, new facilitates, stabling depots, devising new timetables and the rest of it.

Where have we been with all this before? Thameslink! In short Thameslink was an attempt to provide more capacity longer trains and more destinations. It was very commendable. But it was costly. New connections had to be made. New depots built. New lines built and some of these had to be constructed many years prior to any anticipation of the possible new services. New trains introduced. And what happened when these additional services were introduced? The whole thing fell apart. The new railway services were a total shambles and took the best part of a year to sort out.

What HS2 means is we will need to invest further huge sums of monies (and major line closures) to enable our railways to have the greater capacities HS2 claims will be possible. Its not just that. In order to introduce and considerable new services there’s an enormous amount of work upfront which HS2 apparently isn’t even mentioning….

Railways as the jack of all trades:

I want to return to the subject of what some are calling the railways’ ‘jack of all trades.’ All our railways have a mix of fast, semi fast and slow trains. HS2 and its advocates claims this issue will be mitigated once the new line is up and running.

Despite HS2 and no matter where, there is still going to be a mix of trains that will need to be timetabled so that slow trains leave a rail terminus just after a fast train, and the next train to leave, a fast train, leaves at a time in such a manner that convenience will allow it to overtake the slow train further up the line. Yes there will be some benefits but it still means capacity isn’t used up that well.

Remember railway lines leave many substantially large terminii with say six tracks or more. These progressively reduce to four, and then to two tracks. The extra capacity eventually fizzles out. There has to be a knock on effect that transpires back all the way to the trains’ origin. The entire railway system is now so intensively used that a problem in Aberdeen can easily affect lines south of Exeter!

For example Birmingham and Manchester – and even Euston – will still have to be ‘jack of all trades.’ Euston may struggle as its platform capacity for local lines and regional expresses will be reduced considerably as a direct result of HS2. Conversely Birmingham and Manchester are just some many major stations in the UK where a mix of expresses and local stopping trains invariably use antiquated trackage systems.

Birmingham New Street for example has a good number of trackage to the south so there’s a fair amount of flexibility. To the north its practically two tracks thus everything (expresses, cross country services, local stoppers and empty trains to/from the depot) has to be squeezed down this one pair of lines.

Whilst HS2 will reduce demand in strategic directions it wont reduce the pressure in all directions and there will still be this jockeying of fast and slow trains required.

Very ironically most of the quieter two track railways are out in the country where any increase in capacity isn’t really going to make much difference. Not only that on these quieter sections there are perversely few stations in in use because so many have been closed down. What it means is slow trains don’t even have anywhere to stop for a start!

This means if extra capacity is essential (being additional stations and more stopping opportunities for local communities) new stations will need to be built. And that costs a lot of money as well as construction time.

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There are no stations between Crewe and Chester – they’ve all been closed even Beeston & Tarporley!

Take any number of cross county routes that once had numerous stations which have now been pared down to just the major ones for example Shrewsbury to Wrexham, or Crewe to Chester and one will see a stopping train and an express are not really much different in terms of line capacity because the slow trains dont have anywhere to stop!

What it means is one cannot introduce extra stopping trains on certain lines and increase capacity – because there’s nowhere for the trains to stop!

The proponents of HS2 say if the new line does not get built there is going to be massive gridlock on the existing railways. I wouldn’t argue against that. I can see where their line of reasoning arises. However let’s face it our railways are in dire need of huge investment if they are going to be able to move substantial vast numbers of people in the future.

Again we need to remember that with or without HS2, our railways need an awful lot of investment. Decades of under investment and deep rationalisation have left our railways with little scope for flexibility or expansion. Track has been removed, depots closed down, platforms removed and so on. Our railways are quite straitjacketed in fact.

HS2 wont replace the use of roads:

I have been very curious about the claim HS2 will reduce CO2. Its a great idea and it seems to have merits. We must simply reduce pollution and try to avoid other environmental penalties as much as we can. But let’s not forget one thing. Everytime the railways need work (replacing track, bridges, platform alterations, new points, crossovers, new signals etc) buses have to be used to enable passengers to by-pass these engineering works.

Ironically this means the railways machine still needs the roads machine. Even sometimes it has been perversely cheaper to move locomotives and rolling stock by road! The railways in fact rely on the roads quite a lot is somewhat ironic especially when the railways claim they are more C02 efficient!

HS2 will no doubt require a lot of energy. Its not jut the electricity. Its the manpower needed to maintain the railway. Repair the lines, bridges, tunnels, stations etc. The road vehicles needed to keep the HS2 maintenance machine in momentum. The enormous amounts of power needed to move the trains and transit people about its stations (escalators, lifts, mobility vehicles etc) as well as the energy needed to light up and run the various premises, retail units, offices, cleaning facilities etc.

Its difficult to see how the CO2 claims can be fully justified. Yes the railway itself might reduce CO2 but that is just part of the equation as I have just illustrated. The construction of HS2 wont reduce CO2 nor will it abate the numerous considerable environmental problems.

ECAGT1WXsAAszzT - Britain's biggest rail controversy - with some solutions

We even have to pretend buses/coaches are in fact a special train of some sort! Source: Twitter

I often wonder, will HS2 really avoid the need for engineering works and bus replacement services. Say that part of HS2 had to be closed (which means in effect a whole stretch of HS2 would be unusable) would this mean that express coach services will invariably have to be put on between say Euston and Birmingham? Let’s face it, there’s Euston, Old Oak Common and Birmingham. Those are the only stations on the first phase of the line!

There’s nothing in between to facilitate a temporary service that replaces the trains whist some engineering works are under way.

Some might say – ‘better planning will avoid this.’

Possibly. But what about emergencies? Where line closures simply cannot be avoided? Where do passengers board and alight from trains on two different sections of line either side of these works? Yes the sad fact is HS2 will need road transport in order to temporarily alleviate its problems!

Under these circumstances coaches would have to run from London to Birmingham and vice versa. Ticketing arrangements could be put in place with other lines to allow passengers to use these as an alternative. But if these other lines are now indeed running at capacity (as a result of HS2) then the alternatives are not as great as thought possible and means coaches will need to be used.

Again this is a case of sucking up to the roads machine if HS2 is indeed reliant on replacement coach services. What it tells us is the railways are invariably not in a million years independent in any way of the roads machine no matter how much we like to think they are.

Even if HS2 has bi-directional track there will still be problems because there wont be any proper alternative routes for trains if there is a major blockade of any sort.

Not so terribly high speed is it?

The TGV lines in France have considerable options for its trains to use ordinary rail routes if problems do occur. HS2 wont have that!

Even in terms of constructing HS2 itself, its a huge irony the roads machine is going to have to be employed to a great extent. A network of temporary roads will need to be built across countryside and through woodlands to access what will ultimately become the HS2 route itself and huge amounts of materials will have to be brought by road to each of the construction sites.

This issue alone is causing mass fraction between HS2 contractors and the villagers, towns people, whose homes and properties are on or near the route of HS2. One does not have to be on HS2 to be directly affected by its route but one can be on the route of one of its access roads and they will be in its way just the same.

EJRyUpkWoAAgqOF - Britain's biggest rail controversy - with some solutions

HS2 access road in the Chilterns ANOB. Source: Twitter

HS2 and parallel motorwways:

Speaking of the roads, there is another aspect of HS2 that has been little discussed but I am going to take that debate further.

I am sure some of you will have read the Bow Group’s plans for what they say is a much more sensible HS2 route and one that isn’t as expensive. Its one where HS2 should parallel the M40 as much as possible (as well as serving Heathrow Airport – something I am not too keen on that or the idea of creating two parallel arteries side by side. Its a waste of land and a waste of resources.)

But the Bow group are right on one particular point. The idea of HS2 as it stands is to drive a whole new railway through virgin swathes of countryside and that is causing great dissentation among the people who live in the country. The Bow Group says that is a big negative in terms of trying to favour the present plans.

They say driving HS2 through the Chilterns is a big no-no because of environmental, areas of outstanding natural beauty etc and the fact the new line will defile sensitive areas of countryside isn’t going to endear people at all to the idea of a new railway.

The Chilterns are important since we believe that the wrong solution here, the first major environmental obstacle as HSR heads north from London, has the potential to derail HSR policy. The suspicion, until proved otherwise, is that HS2 Ltd. may underestimate the potential for opposition, however logical their proposals may appear to their engineering minds. Source: Bow Group

What the Bow Group believe is HS2 should be built near or adjacent to existing transport arteries. I do agree that building a high speed railway as close to an existing alignment (eg a motorway) does have its merits, as the Bow Group points out was done with HS1. But I don’t think that goes far enough!

Take advantage of the roads!

What I think should happen is HS2 should in fact be built on the M40 (and also on the M1 – yes go on laugh at me) and by this we will gain new high speed lines using existing alignments. We could also use the M42, M69, M5 and others to build other connecting high speed routes (and even use the sections of the former Great Central railway around those areas to provide linking lines or relief lines etc.)

We could of course reduce the carriageways of these motorway to just half. This would mean HS2 uses the redundant half (it means a road one side of the central reservation and a railway the other.)

As for getting into the centre of Birmingham well why not use the Aston expressway? The idea being with this new railway the roads wont be required so much. After all we are ultimately reducing dependency on the motor car – so we could at least get rid of half the Aston Expressway!

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HS1 parallels a lot of the M2 and other roads. Does this concept go far enough however? Source: Twitter

Some will say the alignments used on motorways wont afford HS2 the full 250 mph ability being touted. I will agree that is true. 225 mph is still very fast and that could reasonably be done. The original TGV lines were quite undulating and had a lot of curves yet trains could sustain extremely high speeds up to 168mph/270kph.

I am sure the great engineering minds could think of some good solutions for adopting half a motorway into a railway. That’s what they are here for! Time to get creative!

The reason I am suggesting this roads into railways conversion is because with the present HS2 plans, we are not seeing any strategic approach towards a reduction in roads traffic and I think that is absolutely important.

I believe if we have new high speed lines and improve the railways substantially there should be a consecutive reduction in the roads we have. Whats the point of having HS2 when there’s a high speed road (motorway actually) parallel for a good bit of the way? You see, this is the railways again sucking up to the roads machine and its not a cohesive policy in terms of future transport.

We have pretty good ready made alignments in terms of the motorways (yes I am aware some additional engineering and diversions may be needed like where the M40 climbs steeply through the Chilterns and a viaduct or a tunnel might be needed but at least this would be on existing alignments.) If we are very serious about achieving reductions in road use then it seems to me we wont be needing the motorways quite so much will we?

There is another huge advantage to this idea. By closing half a motorway contractors will immediately be provisioned with a ready made access road! There would be no need for considerable land purchases, compulsory purchases etc and no new temporary access roads would have to be built through villages or towns or across sensitive countryside.

Those villages and towns could even opt in and have stations to serve their communities if they wanted, with additional trains stopping at loop platforms out of the way of non stop expresses.

Its a bit like the Victoria Embankment in London. Give half of that over to cycling. The motorists have the remaining half and the other is a brand new transport artery without even having had to source an extra piece of land to build it.

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The Embankment cycleway under construction. Half a road given to other purposes. Source: Twitter

Its exactly the same as having a four lane roadway and giving half of it to a new tramway as has happened in this country and elsewhere!

The alternative transport question:

Its often said we will need to reduce our CO2 footprint considerably by 2050. Clearly by then we should have envisaged alternatives to the roads machine (and indeed the airports machine) so we wont need the roads so much and the airports we wont need so much either.

There would be one advantage in building HS2 to link up to the airports. As these land grabbing behemoths reduce in size the freed up space could be used for more housing. Thus these newly established residential locations would already have a railway station on stream. Brilliant!

You might say, what are we going to do without air travel? I didn’t say that did I? What we are going to do however is without these huge gigantic planes that need so much space to take off and land and taxi to and from their terminals. Come off it. Airports take up sooo much land! Space is at a premium because they need to have huge wings in order to take off! Think of something! Let’s look at it this way. HS2 is going to cost at least £88 billion (highly likely to be well over £100 billion) yet we are capable of sending people to the moon and establishing a colony there for under £30 billion!! Project Artemis is due to take place from 2024 onward.

At this rate its going to be cheaper to send people to Mars than it will be to send them to Birmingham! And cheaper still to send people up to a space station and then back down to wherever they want to go rather than them fly on some old clap trap winged aircraft across the surface of the planet! Come on! We’ve had a century and half to pussyfoot around with fossil fuels and the rest of it. Whats shocking is we have not progressed beyond winged aircraft, fuel driven engines, not forgetting these archaic steering wheels and control pedals used in cars!

We’ve too stuck two fingers at many genuine and good attempts to provide alternative forms of transport. Hyperloop for example was invented in the mid 19th Century yet we act as if its a brand new idea! Its time we moved on a bit and got serious with some better ideas… we wouldn’t be in this huge environmental crisis if we had got to grips with the uses of energy and electricity much earlier and reduced dependency on fossil fuels. We burnt the damn stuff like there was no tomorrow! And now we ARE in that tomorrow!

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Rare photo of the world’s first ever Hyperloop. Alfred Ely Beach’s pneumatic subway built 1869-70. Source: Twitter

Back to an earlier point in question… by using existing alignments as much as possible (motorways, the Chiltern main line, the line from Old Oak to Northolt (instead of tunnelling under that alignment as HS2 proposes), using the former Great Central Railway, perhaps a main road or two alignment thrown in too, we will be using existing routes and there will be very little need to build a railway through sensitive areas such as the Chilterns ANOB and the many SSSIs, forests, woodlands, wetlands that lie in the path of the planned HS2. Plus HS2 would have more opportunities for alternative routes if its main artery should for any reason not be available.

The environment:

I have written about this aspect of HS2 before thus I will keep this part brief. As well as claims of CO2 mitigation HS2 has claims it will be a huge green corridor – something that has not been done before. That is an admirable quality. One can view the plans – or the aerial movies of the line’s routes on Youtube – and see just how much ‘green’ HS2 will be putting into the environment.

Its just that so much has to be taken in order to provide so much alternative. Cloning what is lost. That’s why its going to cost a lot. The environment is not cheap as we are beginning to find out the true costs of our slash/burn/throwaway society. The costs are horrific and to be even able to mitigate that to a small extent means a considerable reduction in forms of transport that do not penalise the environment most horrifically.

That is why I suggest using existing alignments, not new ones and by that obtaining a like for like reduction in other modes of transport and actual reduction in terms of land use demand.

HS2 will demand huge requirements in terms of water abstraction, oils – for plastics, cabling, circuits, computers, trains, depots, signalling, construction machinery and so on. The list is endless.

The problem with ANY future is invariably it requires use of energy and materials for which we simply have no unlimited well we can tap into (as well as the consequential damage of extraction, production, and actual use of transport mode.)

Many of our cities are booming with huge skyscrapers that know no bounds or limits. Its all very exciting of course but in the long term it will cause many environmental problems which we are not even aware of yet. The concreting over of more land – and the higher buildings go the actual changes that will occur in the weather because these huge structures could cause change in the global airstreams – this means more violent storms (and the concreting over even greater flooding.)

It does seem one of the intents of HS2 is to facilitate air travel at regional airports. If the Bow Group’s idea is taken on it will also facilitate Heathrow too. Facilitating these giant behemoths that are aeroplanes with massive requirements for land space is simply not on.

If we want to expand in terms of air travel we need to think of better ways. Be more creative. Use the upper stratosphere, space even. Space stations as distribution points where people can change to all manner of destinations. No more winged travel destroying the quality and integrity of our valuable air. We’ve already polluted our water to a massive extent with plastics, killed off dozens of species, maimed numerous animals and marine life, yet we are not seriously tackling air travel even though that too is destroying the quality of the air every living thing breathes.


There’ one thing about all of this that I can assure will be quite definitive. From the current state of things, what it seems from the recent leaks is the Oakervee report will give HS2 the big thumbs up. What will happen is they will build HS2. Its more a case of build it, and deal with the other shit later. Except once again it will be an utter mess. No real foresight. No real vision of the future. No real understanding of the wider scale of the problems at hand. HS2, despite being an exciting new high speed railway will be the product of short termed vision as usual.

Some say by the time HS2 is finished it will be outdated. Of course! Its completion is now being advocated for around 2035 or later. HS2 is for a certain future but not the future I am discussing. Rather its the present concept of a contrived future where vision is short on ideas and expensive on results. In a way HS2 is like Hyperloop. Big on ideas short on actual vision.

Some may contest my views but I do think Hyperloop is short on vision in many ways. Its not to say that I hate Hyperloop (just as I don’t totally hate HS2 either.) These concepts have great potential and are indeed very exciting. They too are pointers towards the kinds of futures we should be thinking about. Its just that I don’t think the vision being procured is complete. Its not even taking into consideration the next generational steps in the future in terms of where we want to be and how we want to survive and treat the environment and be at one with nature and the rest of it. In my view the philosophy of these new transport systems as they stand are quite limited.

What it seems to me is it like this. Build them at once! Solve the problems immediately! Job done! New railway in operation…..

Invariably it means a new railway with more land taken for its acquirement rather than as I suggest, a means of taking something that’s existing to enable its alignment. In that respect it will be a giant behemoth just as Heathrow’s third runaway is posed to be.

Just as every country is potentially running out of water, and other valuable resources, we in the UK are running out of land.

It would be nice to have HS2 and have it as a solution to some of our transport problems. I would agree it has merits and it could change a lot of things. However I think we need to have more debates, more thought upon the matter and decide what we really want. Its important to have a better vision overall that has much wider benefits and a longer lasting solution across the whole spectrum of needs and wants – not some wheeze that’s going to end up a massive white elephant as well as smash up the environment for decades to come.

To be HS2 or not to be HS2?

Here are a few cartoons that reflect the state of the public’s consciousness towards HS2. These are here merely to alleviate what has been otherwise a quite heavy topic!

EJQnBvyU8AA3IXh - Britain's biggest rail controversy - with some solutions

Very amusing cartoon re HS2! Quite apt in a lot of ways! Source: Twitter

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Steve Bell on HS2. Source: Guardian

BBxc4yTCYAAW8zZ - Britain's biggest rail controversy - with some solutions

Quite apt. This illustrates that HS2 benefits London more than anywhere else. Source: Twitter

EHvru98XUAgeQoy - Britain's biggest rail controversy - with some solutions

Delays! Delays! Construction gets longer and later! Source: Twitter

ECkLXNAUIAATycU - Britain's biggest rail controversy - with some solutions

LOL! HS2 financial costs sorted at a stroke! Source: Twitter

BmYDfChCAAAL29F - Britain's biggest rail controversy - with some solutions

HS2 a tangled web perhaps? Source: Twitter

CoJXot3WgAEziVs - Britain's biggest rail controversy - with some solutions

Fake tunnels to avoid being mown down by the HS2 machine! Source: Twitter

CyQ4TQJXAAAhR7t - Britain's biggest rail controversy - with some solutions

A rich fantasist’s railway game perhaps? Source: Twitter

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