Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

High speed future

After nearly 20 years online myself, I understand the power of virtual connectivity. It has changed the world like nothing since Boulton and Watt started manufacturing the first steam engines in Birmingham 235 years ago. But a prosperous economy cannot be built on digital linkages alone. For the first time in history, the world is now majority-urban. Cities are where people come together to share ideas and build dreams.

The genius of HS2 is to converge the places where people converge – cities. Rail travel times to Leeds and Manchester from Birmingham will halve, while London will be 49 minutes from Birmingham and Paris less than three hours.

These are complements to, not substitutes for, the digital revolution. Those who puzzle at HS2 when we have video conferencing understand neither human history nor its future.

HS2 makes it easier for more people to be in the same room and digital technology makes it easier for them to find reasons to be so. There is a virtuous circle of people being in proximity and technology opening up new connections, which creates further reasons for them to interact and be in proximity. Economists call the benefits of getting everyone in the same room agglomeration. Everyone else calls it life, humanity.

One of Birmingham’s great under-exploited advantages is its location. The potential for agglomeration in Birmingham is greater than elsewhere. But our rail infrastructure doesn’t currently reflect this quality. HS2’s Y-network changes this. It would put Birmingham at the centre of the national rail network, in a way that it isn’t now. When combined with local and regional rail enhancements, KPMG estimate the benefit to the west Midlands at £1.5bn and 22,000 jobs.

Major cities which become connected to other cities, and particularly to larger ones, by high speed rail always see a significant rise in economic growth. For once, this is a nationally-funded project from which Birmingham benefits disproportionately. Failure to grasp the opportunity would be perverse.

But if we in Birmingham stand to benefit most, Leeds and Manchester will benefit massively too. As will anyone within future striking distance of the line. Which is the overwhelming majority of people in the UK.

And we all need to have the self-confidence and conviction to celebrate being closer to London, not shrink from it. Birmingham has nothing to fear from a London less than 50 minutes away and everything to gain from having one of the three or four great world cities even more squarely on our doorstep. This is an opportunity afforded to us uniquely in Europe, and to only a handful of other cities on the planet. Birmingham’s irreducible core, which will be strengthened if the city makes the right choices, ensures that bringing London closer will not reduce us to its satellite. It will further open Birmingham to the world through the window on it that is London.

My one complaint is that HS2 is scheduled to take too long. There are no technical reasons why we need to wait 15 years for this project to come on stream. In other parts of the world, such rail schemes are delivered – conception to completion – much more quickly and with much less fuss. For once, let it be so here, and let’s aim for 2018. If this is worth doing, and it is, it’s worth doing a lot more quickly.

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Siôn Simon
stood down from parliament in 2010 in order to campaign for an elected mayor for Birmingham

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Photo: Les Chatfield

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Siôn Simon

is MP for Birmingham Erdington and associate editor of the Spectator

9 comments

  • I know that Progress backs the high speed rail link. However, environmental issues aside (a big aside!) can anyone explain why billions should be spent shaving half an hour off a trip to Birmingham that takes only 90 minutes now, when such money could be invested in re-opening closed track and laying new track?

  • Why are people just talking about Birmingham to London as though London were the centre of our universe? HS2, if approached with imagination could, for example mean Brmingham to Paris and vice versa in under 4 hours. How many people might that tempt off the airlines? HS2 should begin and end at St Pancras and not Euston. HS2 trains should be able to bypass St Pancras and use HS1 to the continent. Trains bypassing St Pancras may always stop at Stratford with its excellent set of connections, courtesy of preparations for the Olympics. And what about finally instituting sleepers services through the Channel Tunnel. Services that would start from destinations including London, Birmingham, Cardiff and Edinburgh. The sleeping cars were built for use through the tunnel, but were sold off abroad when the Government took over the project. And what about connecting HS2 to existing lines in Birmingham as well as making connections from the West Coast Mainline to HS2 at the southern end and from the East Coast Mainline to HS1 where HS1 comes closest to the line into Kings Cross. It is possible to increase usage of HS1 before HS2 is completed. HS1 is currently under utilised http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/aug/04/nicola-shaw-high-speed-one?INTCMP=SRCH Plenty of environmental benefits and economic gains from maximising the potential of HS2.

  • Sion, ask someone who has to co-ordinate the national rail timetable for long distance services if Birmingham is the hub of the network. You might be surprised at the answer! London is second to Birmingham in that regard!

  • The current high-speed rail plans would give Birmingham just one extra train per hour as, with the introduction of three services per hour on HS2, the three fast trains per hour from London Euston to New Street would be cut to just one train per hour.

    £32 billion for one extra train per hour and a timesaving of about 20 mins doesn’t seem a great use of public funds.

  • […] build dreams. And, now and again, do a spot of rioting. Anyway, the first sentence appears in an article by prospective Birmingham mayor Sion Simon for ‘Progress Online’, about British […]

  • Janie, may I ask where you live please? Please read my post. HS2 is about more than making it quicker to get from Birmingham to London. And your approach, if used in the 19th Century would have meant that stage coaches would never had been replaced by passenger trains.

  • The Benefits Internationally, Nationally, Regionally and Locally of Making the Right Choice for the Site of Birmingham City’s HS2 Station

    The Contention

    HS2 is, in my opinion being criminally undersold and the proposed location of the Birmingham terminus is a key part of that underselling. We are being presented with a project designed and promoted by (what I have come to regard as) the London Trading Company for the benefit of the London Trading Company. In the process, the major economic and social benefits that would accrue to all parts of the United Kingdom and Ireland are being minimised to the detriment of the debate about whether or not HS2 should actually be built.

    A major criticism of HS2 is that it does not meet the government’s remit of a line from London to the West Midlands. The proposed central Birmingham station is completely disconnected from all other local railway lines, 5 minutes walk from Moor Street and 10 minutes walk from New Street. As such, there is no ability to travel on by train to the rest of the West Midlands or anywhere else for that matter.

    The main issue in Birmingham is that New Street station is beyond capacity already. There is currently a large investment going into a facelift for the station, but that investment will provide no new capacity to ease congestion at track level and/or increase services. As a result, Birmingham is going to face issues whether HS2 arrives or not.

    The Assumption

    HS2 (and HS1) Failure of Vision and Imagination

    Sleeper Services to the Continent from All Parts of the United Kingdom?

    What If Birmingham Breaks With Tradition?

    International Implications

    National Implications for Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales

    A Direct London Service for Walsall

    Implications for the West Midlands

    Implications for Birmingham

    Why Birmingham Parkway?

    Real Capacity Improvements for Parts of the WCML

    High Speed Freight and the Regeneration of the Most Deprived Constituencies in the UK

    Services Originating Off HS2 Using the Line to London and the Continent

    Birmingham Parkway (Gateway to the Midlands?)
    Are Their Downsides to Birmingham Parkway?

    Why We Need to Do Things Differently!

    We Can And Must Do Better In What Is A Once In A Lifetime Opportunity!

    The Assumption

    In the early 1990s, before British Rail was privatised there were already serious concerns about the bottleneck that is Birmingham New Street Station. The station is, despite not being in London at the centre of Great Britain’s cross-country and intercity network. It is also a major commuter hub for local and regional services. BR conducted a study into passenger usage of the cross-country and intercity services. The results were startling. Most of the passengers on these services neither began nor ended their journeys at Birmingham New Street, although some may have changed trains there.

    BR was prompted, therefore, to consider building a new station to handle intercity and cross country services that would reduce congestion at New Street and allow for the expansion of local and regional services using the station. They alighted upon a site in what we now call the Heartlands. An overhead electrified line leaves the Coventry to Birmingham line at Stechford and connects with the Birmingham to Walsall line at Aston. Overhead electrified trains may use this line without reversing to go from Coventry to Wolverhampton. Furthermore, the line passes over the line from Water Orton to Birmingham New Street. The point where the one line crossed the other was where BR proposed to build a new two level station. The station would allow for all cross country and inter city services to be rerouted away from New Street and by its design; it would make it easier for people to change trains. In addition, by taking trains away from the Kings Norton to New Street line and sending them to the Heartlands via the Camp Hill line it would allow for reduced journey times and an increased chance of punctuality on those services. Inter city services from Coventry to Wolverhampton going via Aston would ease congestion on the direct Birmingham to Wolverhampton line. However, privatisation and a perverse belief on the part of some that all trains must pass through New Street put paid to any serious further work on the project.

    The problem of congestion at New Street has worsened over the last two decades and the current retail makeover will not provide any more space for trains, but it will provide a nice place for passengers to wait for their overdue train or contemplate the implications of a missed connection. The plonking down, I cannot think of a better phrase of the proposed HS2 terminus in Birmingham’s Eastside, a location physically disconnected from the rest of the local rail network will also do little to improve train services through New Street. However, the trains will terminate close to the city centre so the representatives of the London Trading Company may flit in and out of Birmingham at their ease. In addition, Birmingham will be able to boast four city centre stations with only two of them on the same railway line.

    I suspect that the Eastside location would have appealed to Dr Beeching whose flawed analysis of how people use trains seems still to be in vogue in some quarters today. In essence, Beeching assumed that if you closed, for example a branch line used by people to travel to a junction to catch another rail service then they would continue to do so, but make the first part of their journey by car and then switch to rail at the junction. Alas, many once in their cars kept on driving. Connections are important to rail travellers and ones they may make easily, quickly and without fuss even more so. Is the Eastside location designed to encourage or deter use of HS2 by the maximum number of likely passengers?

    I contend that we need to elevate our vision in this matter and revisit the BR assumptions from the early 1990s and, if they still hold good then the money to be spent on the proposed HS2 terminus in Eastside would be better spent on a Birmingham Parkway Station in the Heartlands.

    HS2 (and HS1) Failure of Vision and Imagination

    HS1 is currently woefully underutilised. Only in the last 18 months or so have trials been run for services other than Eurostar to use the line and only in the last year have trials been undertaken of high speed freight on HS1. HS2 should be built with such things in mind so that on the day when the overhead wires are energised a much wider range of services, including freight are scheduled to run from the off.

    HS1 should be connected to the East Coast Main Line so that services may run from Edinburgh, Newcastle and the like to the Continent. Such services need not just run during the day either.

    Sleeper Services to the Continent from All Parts of the United Kingdom?

    What about a sleeper service to Paris from Edinburgh? Moreover, services to the Continent from the North of London could stop at Stratford with its excellent public transport connections courtesy of the Olympics. That would really be exploiting the Olympic legacy to the maximum.

    We need to break with tradition. Is there any reason at all, apart from tradition why HS2 should terminate at Euston? Why, in one sense does it have to terminate at all? It should certainly have its London stop at St Pancras, allowing passengers to connect directly with HS1 services, both international and local. However, is there any reason why HS2 services might not bypass St Pancras and head on to the Continent via HS1? Such services may always stop at Stratford if required. Curiously, although Stratford was built for the Eurostars to stop there they currently do not. Moreover, if sleeper services can use the ECML then why not sleeper services using the WCML too? Sleeper services from Holyhead, Liverpool and Manchester to the Continent perhaps. In addition, what about the West of England with services from Fishguard and Penzance? Travellers from Northern Ireland and the Republic could be accommodated by such services. And yes, I am talking about travelling for pleasure not just business. Too much of the promotion of HS2 is about speeding business people around the country.

    By the way, sleeping cars were assembled here in Birmingham for use through the Channel Tunnel, but when the Government took over the project, they were quietly sold off. After all, no one north of Watford would use such a service, would they? And people south of Watford would be through to the Continent in a jiffy so sleeping cars were unnecessary. The London Trading Company strikes again.

    As an aside, I gather they do run Eurostar services to particular Alpine resorts during the skiing season specifically for the benefit of skiers. What London and the South East wants they get it seems.

    What If Birmingham Breaks With Tradition?

    If Birmingham was to break with tradition and Birmingham Parkway is a viable proposition, (due to the assumption, that BR’s passenger survey data still stands) then what dear reader is in it for you?

    International Implications

    Plenty of services from North, Central and South Wales and Scotland pass through Birmingham New Street. Those services would be switched to Birmingham Parkway with easy cross station connections to HS2. Passengers from Ireland and Northern Ireland crossing the Irish Sea and using services from Wales would be able to avail themselves of those connections too. The provision of sleeper services to the Continent would greatly expand the appeal of such journeys. For example, imagine boarding a train in Aberystwyth around 17:00 and having coffee in Paris the following morning, having only changed trains once and that to a sleeping car.

    The potential to encourage people to switch from air to rail is worth serious research.

    National Implications for Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales

    In many ways, they are the same as for the countries of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, but the journeys would be shorter and possibly the potential patronage greater. Again, there would be potential to encourage people to switch from air to rail.

    A Direct London Service for Walsall

    WCML services from Euston to Wolverhampton currently have driving cabs at both ends. These services could run from Coventry to Walsall and then reverse at Walsall to travel on to Wolverhampton. They would of course stop at Birmingham Parkway on the way between Birmingham International and Walsall.

    Implications for the West Midlands

    Freeing up Birmingham New Street to allow for improvements in service punctuality and an increase in regional services overall would be a major benefit of Birmingham Parkway. It would pose a challenge to those opposed to the project who say they would never use HS2 so they will not benefit from the money to be invested in it. It is reasonable to assume that quite a few of these people commute into Birmingham by train and from well outside the city boundary. Improving the experience of their daily commute might go some way to softening some of the opposition to HS2.

    Implications for Birmingham

    Again, there should be a bonus from HS2 of increased punctuality and the leeway to increase service frequencies. In addition, HS2 may improve the economic case for various proposed improvements to the local rail infrastructure as set out in the Centro Rail Strategy. Were services on HS2 to merge with the line from Water Orton to access Birmingham Parkway then that would result in the electrification of part of that route. HS2 services could then travel on and terminate at Birmingham New Street if the entire cross country and inter city services were only stopping at Birmingham Parkway. Most of the line into New Street from Parkway would have to be electrified and that might well have knock on effects for other electrification plans for the immediate area.

    There are proposals (see Centro Rail Strategy) to re-open stations along the Camp Hill Line, in the Heartlands and on the Sutton Park Line. These would all have their economic cases enhanced by the location of Birmingham Parkway. Electrifying the Camp Hill Line from Kings Norton to Birmingham Parkway would make a number of route variations possible, particularly if the Lifford Curve were electrified too. Take a look at this map and imagine yourself for a moment a 21st Century Brunel …

    The proposal to link Moor Street Station to the Camp Hill Line using viaducts still has merit if Birmingham Parkway were to be built. Alternatively, why not move (the blot on the landscape that is) Bordesley Station away from Moor Street to where the Camp Hill Line crosses the line from Moor Street to Small Heath and construct a new two level station there, dispensing with the need for the viaducts. The line from Bordesley into Moor Street might still be quadrupled to improve access to the station and allow for two more terminal platforms to be brought into use at Moor Street. The development of the latter would be of use to the Shakespeare Express whose operators would, I believe like to run more services than those they currently run each year.

    One other development that would link with Bordesley would be the complete construction of the viaduct (to nowhere) that was planned to link Bordesley with Duddeston. This additional link line would add significantly to operational capacity in the area and might allow for a new cross-city line service to be developed.

    With few or no long distance trains running between Wolverhampton and Birmingham New Street, perhaps we might finally build a railway station underneath the International Convention Centre?

    Why Birmingham Parkway?

    Well take a look at a map of Birmingham and notice the location’s proximity to Spaghetti Junction and the motorway network. Plenty of space available locally for car parks to be built so that travellers may leave their cars and board HS2 (and other services) for all points of the compass. Logically, the new station would have to be well connected by public transport to the rest of Birmingham and North Solihull and provision made for a coach station.

    The original BR proposal envisaged the station being a stop on the Midland Metro route from Birmingham City Centre to the Airport and the National Exhibition Centre. There have more recently been proposals to run a line out through Eastside to a depot at Duddeston on the site of the old wagon works. Such a proposal is surely worth revisiting, but with the route extending out from a rebuilt (in the style of the Jewellery Quarter) Duddeston Station to Birmingham Parkway. Connecting the Parkway Station to Eastside would aid in the latter’s regeneration to the benefit of both locations. Surely, the prime site that is Eastside would be put to better use and create more jobs if it were available for commercial and business use than as the site of a station that will bring as much congestion as employment to the area?

    Real Capacity Improvements for Parts of the WCML

    HS1 has high speed commuter services. Arguably, similar train sets might be provided to link Rugby, Coventry, Birmingham International, Birmingham Parkway, Birmingham New Street, Wolverhampton, Walsall, Sandwell and Dudley stations using both HS2 and existing lines as appropriate. Such a proposal goes a long way to addressing the view of those that upgrading the WCML should come before HS2. When in fact both are possible if HS2 is integrated more into the existing rail network.

    High Speed Freight and the Regeneration of the Most Deprived Constituencies in the UK

    The Heartlands still has freight yards and Jaguar cars often leave the plant by train, but what potential for economic regeneration would there be if an HS2 freight terminal were built there with high speed access for exporters and importers with the Continent? There is plenty of brownfield land available for industrial development hard by the railway line. Better a rail freight hub on the former GEC Alstom and LDV sites than an HS2 maintenance depot?

    The use of HS2 for freight from elsewhere on the rail network provides an opportunity for Liverpool, for example to become the place where ships unload containers for onward transport to Europe. There is even research under way to see if trains may run all the way to China.

    Services Originating Off HS2 Using the Line to London and the Continent

    In the longer term, if the line from Swansea to Birmingham, for example were electrified would it be inconceivable for a service starting in Swansea to travel to Birmingham on the non high speed line and then access HS2 for London and beyond?

    Birmingham Parkway (Gateway to the Midlands?)

    Birmingham Parkway Station, if built should not become another temple to the gods of retail. It should meet the needs of the passengers arriving and departing at its platforms as well as those changing trains. But, it should also be used as a showcase to highlight everything that Birmingham and the surrounding areas have to offer for those seeking pleasure as well as doing business.

    In addition, the station should be built to be carbon positive. The design should meet the highest BREEAM standards and incorporate as appropriate green roofs, grey water recycling, horizontal wind turbines, PV panels, ground source heat pumps etc. In short, it should be a 21st Century Station for the 21st Century.

    Are Their Downsides to Birmingham Parkway?

    The junction at Aston is a weak point and consideration might have to be given to increasing the number of tracks there to avoid it becoming a bottleneck in the future, but contrast that with the costs of rebuilding a congested Birmingham New Street if the current proposal is implemented. Birmingham Parkway is better in opportunity cost terms than Birmingham Eastside.

    Why We Need to Do Things Differently!

    Whilst Birmingham New Street is being revamped, a direct connection for foot passengers is being established with Moor Street Station:

    “Moor St link – you may have noticed some activity at the foot of the Rotunda as we start construction of the new walkway which will link the Rotunda with Stephenson Street.”

    Curiously, Moor Street is in the opposition direction to Stephenson Street, but setting that point aside a walkway is not the same as an all weather subway with travelator, lit by sun pipes and good quality lighting with showcases and displays highlighting the attractions of the West Midlands. Birmingham may be a city with European standing, but too often these days it comes across as being only one step up from Clochemerle; the exit to nowhere at the Jewellery Quarter end of Birmingham Snow Hill being a case in point. The coach station it was meant to connect with has not been built and the exit may only be used between 7:00 and 19:00 Monday to Saturday.

    We Can And Must Do Better In What Is A Once In A Lifetime Opportunity!

    All I ask is that the recipients of this document seriously question the economic and social value of the proposed location of the Birmingham HS2 Terminus and think long and hard about the value and benefits to Birmingham and the West Midlands as well as England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland of building Birmingham Parkway instead.

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