Is it full speed ahead for HS2?

Masterplan visual for the proposed Birmingham Interchange station

With another MIPIM property conference over, 2017 proceeds apace. From my perspective, it seems each year gets quicker. As a society we undoubtedly have ever-increasing demands for speed. This is seen in all aspects of communication, in business and in leisure.

By contrast, my thoughts here are set in the context of the latest procedural stage of HS2, which seems incredibly slow. The project has at last achieved Royal Assent which should ensure phase 1 to Birmingham gets built in my lifetime. The truth is that if the Victorians had taken this long to build a rail line we might not have had one until the late 1920s.

What though will this project mean for UK city planning, beyond the immediate route and its origin and destination?

On reflection there are possibly few now working who recall travel by steam train. There was little romantic about a slow dirty train to London from Wigan in the mid-60s. Very little service sector business existed between cities in those days despite the notion of “intercity” and the famous logo representing that “modern age” being introduced. What a fantastic design icon it is; still the symbol for rail stations across the UK, and remarkably still printed on the rail tickets we carry.

50 years on, in the second decade of the twenty first century, I now travel to at least two if not three different UK cities on business each week. I expect to work in comfort on the trains and to arrive on time. Mostly this works well though overcrowding, particularly on cross-country routes, journey times and the rolling stock itself often let us down as a nation. There are particular conflicts around capacity on long distance and commuting routes, not to mention the often unseen lack of capacity and flexibility for freight, which so often now heads for the road network instead.

The Manchester to London west coast route is now around two hours each way, at an eye-watering return cost of £338 (£484 first class) without discounts. A linking theme in many of this year’s property presentations in Cannes was the need for city connectivity and interdependency.

Having been granted Royal Assent, HS2 now needs to be delivered. Manchester, Birmingham, Solihull, Derby, Nottingham, Sheffield and Crewe are all pursuing development plans which have High Speed Rail interchanges at their hearts. There are others too; cities such as Bradford are desperate for better connectivity. Similarly, for many it is the east-west connections across the north or throughout eastern England, which would bring much more immediate benefit.

Strengthening the economy

We are a small nation competing globally with exceptional services, ideas, creativity and people. Connecting physically is a basic human need and the faster and more conveniently we can do it the better. This paradigm seems unlikely to shift any time soon.

To secure a successful economy and society for our future we need to ensure we keep the UK’s physical infrastructure running effectively. HS2 is a key part of this plan. However, my concern is that the ‘plans’ have to relate to and support one another. There has to be coordination of activities between regions, and between the towns and cities in the regions.

The Northern Powerhouse is among the consistent drivers for the economic and sustainable future of the UK. There is too much at stake in terms of culture, economic and social capital, and indeed physical infrastructure to allow it not to succeed. It has been described in many ways in the last 20 years or so, but the big idea is simple. The UK has great northern cities, great energy and great spirit. Approximately half the UK population lives in the north and it also has room to grow and intensify. It is a viable and thriving alternative to an over-heated south east. What’s not to like?

So why then have we a situation where even though HS2 has been given the green light, it still isn’t certain to get to Manchester? Why indeed are we speaking in those historic terms of going “up” to London? Surely, with the commitment partially made, we should be urging everyone to accelerate the programme and lay the new spine to the heart of the powerhouse.

The resurgence of rail

The last 10 years have seen a marked increase in passenger rail transit. Any regular passenger across Britain experiences overcrowding daily on main cross-country routes in and around the major cities. HS2, if fully delivered, will help alleviate this capacity issue greatly.

What is less convincing is how quickly fast trains and the station redevelopment associated with them will bring regeneration benefits. Birmingham and Manchester have ambitious and exciting proposals, with a degree of unity giving pace to their swift resolution. Elsewhere, there is still much to resolve, not least in the capital where the impact of the infrastructure will be considerable.

My concern is two-fold. First, fast trains from one economic pole to another will not in themselves create the wider powerhouses – northern or otherwise. Secondly, as an urban planner and designer, I am struggling to see examples coming forward which are really contributing to great placemaking.

One final thought: How do we price the journeys? Projecting current pricing forwards, I’m struggling to see the train as a viable mode of choice for the common man or woman, let alone their families.  

This article was first published in Placemaking Resource.

5 April 2017