THE 220mph railway route, HS2 has been announced in detail to complete the Y-shaped network and the trains will operate from London to Birmingham, Crewe, Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield and Leeds (HS1 is the Channel Tunnel rail link and HS3 is what South Wales would like to see built between London and Cardiff).
On the face of it this does little for Wales – but that’s not quite true. As predicted in this column, Crewe HS2 station will be within easy reach of Wrexham and North-East Wales. It could also take direct very fast services from the North Wales coast with direct services from Bangor to London using these fast trains. But the electrification of the North Wales main railway line is a pre-requisite if the Bangor to London journey time is not to remain at 3hr 30min rather than a potential 2hr 30min if TGV type trains were in operation on conventional track to and from Crewe on the high-speed system.
Electrification fits well into the Welsh Government’s railway development plans in parallel to electrifying the South Wales main line and Valley Lines. Discussions with Network Rail and the London-based Department for Transport (DfT) are best begun now while Network Rail is planning the major electrification schemes around Britain and Hitachi train sets are being procured to ensure sufficient trains are available for a direct North Wales-London service and along the west coast main line and link into high-speed operations by 2033 when phase two of HS2 to Manchester is due for completion.
The CBI was enthused by the HS2 development when writing in this newspaper last week (The Long View, January 30). HS2 is indeed "the big prize for Leeds and Manchester” But the CBI also believes the "priority is to connect Welsh business with its key markets”. However unless the DfT rail investment programme includes electrification of the North Wales main line the latter cannot be achieved.
Indeed HS2 brings significant connectivity dis-benefits for Cardiff and Bristol.
It will considerably reduce their competitive edge in terms of journey times to London in the eyes of domestic and international companies considering Cardiff and other cities for "back offices” or a UK base.
The current journey time from London to Cardiff (2hr 5min) compares well with Leeds and Manchester (2hr 23min-2hr 8min). With HS2, journey times to the latter will be 1hr-20min compared with 1hr-45min to Cardiff following electrification. If HS3 from London to Cardiff were constructed we would remain in a very competitive position at 1hr-02min.
The HS2 supporters put congestion on the main line as a reason for that development and it is a valid one. But international inward investors want short journey times and direct links from a London Heathrow Airport rail hub. This link would also help South Wales as there would then be an option for some (not all) electric trains from Swansea to call at Heathrow along the proposed "western facing” line.
But the UK Government appears to have dropped the Heathrow HS2 hub which would have provided high-quality international connections for the South Wales economy. Those with long memories will recall the regional Eurostar trains which were planned to run from Cardiff and Manchester/Liverpool to Paris, Brussels and other major European cities along the 220mph railway network.
This was prevented by cost, and in Cardiff’s case, by no electrified lines. That opportunity now arises again to give South Wales high-speed trains access to HS1 through the planned interchange west of Paddington.
Of course HS2 has to be built. This level of rail investment should have been constructed, and been operating, exactly 30 years ago when I travelled on the very first TGV train service from Paris to Lyon in 1983. But it should be part of a network including HS3 that brings benefits to all the country and not at the expense of the South Wales.
HS2 was only one revolution in Wales’ passenger transport services over the past week. The launch of the GoCymru multi-journey card will bring significant benefits to travellers far sooner than HS2. Similar to London Transport’s Oyster card GoCymru will eventually enable passengers to travel on buses and trains using the same card all over Wales. Multi-journey fare payment forms an essential part of an integrated public transport network along with timetable connections, information and easily identifiable branding such as GoCymru and TrawsCymru
Professor Stuart Cole is Emeritus Professor of Transport, Wales Transport Research Centre, University of Glamorgan