HS2 Replacement By Network North: Net Zero Even Further Away

Written on the 17th October, 2023

The cancellation of the High Speed Link (HS2) between Birmingham and Manchester has been a great disappointment for many who wanted to see better connectivity and more capacity in the UK rail network. It will also have a significant impact on CO2 emissions and air pollution.  The announcement was made by Rishi Sunak at the Conservative Party Conference in late September and the first time for the UK Parliament to discuss the announcement was on Monday 16 October 2023.

The HS2  cancellation seems to be on the rather narrow grounds that rail traffic had declined as a result of the pandemic and that business travel had been greatly reduced.  This seems short-sighted as HS2 should have led to more connectivity and more high speed train links such as the Northern Powerhouse Link originally known as HS3.   It would have reduced the need to travel from Manchester and Liverpool to London by air and also have had the effect of taking freight off roads such as the M6 and the motorway network around Liverpool and Manchester.  The decision making on the project had seen errors and delays such as the line started on the London to Birmingham link rather than Manchester-Liverpool where the need for rail improvements were crucial and more urgent.

The Network North document – it doesn’t warrant being called a strategy – seemed to be stitched together rather quickly and is the UK Government’s alternative to HS2.  It is akin to a strategic rail link being abandoned for a bus replacement service. Indeed, it includes holding bus fares at £2 until the end of 2024.  The errors in the document were soon pointed out as projects were included that had been completed nine years earlier, other projects removed or transferred to the decision of locally elected mayors.  It also included dualling of the A1 road north of Morpeth to the Scottish Borders.  This has been planned for many years but still not delivered.

The lack of strategic impact can be seen as £8.3 billion of the £36 billion saved by the HS2 cancellation will be spent on filling in potholes or improving the road surface as the Transport Secretary described it.  A further £6.5 billion will be spent outside the North and Midlands.

The Network North document does not mention climate change at all, nor did the Transport Secretary in his Parliamentary speech.  However, Wera Hobhouse, the Liberal Democrat MP did.  She pointed out:

  •  Rail produces 76% less carbon dioxide emissions than the equivalent road journey.
  •  Each freight train removes up to 76 lorries from our roads.
  • The decision to scrap the Northern leg of HS2 will lead to up to half a million more lorry journeys up and down the country, resulting in a lot more congestion in our towns and cities.

Indeed, there are a large number of road schemes mentioned in Network North and this  includes “70 road schemes across the country” and “21 smaller road schemes.” The argument in the paper is that most passenger journeys are made by road “with 88% passenger miles by car.”  Network North seems to have the objective of improving roads so that more cars can use them adding to congestion. However, the document says nothing about the increased CO2 emissions or problems with air pollution that will be caused by these road schemes.



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