If we are going to build HS2 then we should build it properly, not terminate the flagship service at an outpost in the west of London

Paradisical bliss: A visualisation of what Old Oak Common will look like

Every so often, I build a new line on my model railway. Apart from keeping me occupied during the dark winter months, it tends to be a rather pointless exercise. Last week’s completed project was a typical example – the track left the mainline, up a hill, looping over itself before culminating at a station, Sadsea Bay, perched in a corner of the layout, so cramped and on top of a hill without space to serve anyone and certainly completely inaccessible. It’s a largely circuitous route that is the opposite of going ‘as the crow flies’ between two places, one of which no one ever would need to go to. But it gave me something to do.

My unnecessary and over budget construction (£375 on polystyrene for the hills, ballast, grass, a left-hand radius point and diamond crossing) reminded me a little of aspects of HS2 and the concept of its terminus being Old Oak Common – a story also that just hasn’t gone away, despite attempts by the government to dampen speculation. Indeed, last week, Michael Gove, secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities did nothing to allay the genuine uncertainty as to whether services will ever go beyond Old Oak Common to Euston. Labour’s shadow transport secretary, Louise Haigh, also remarked that a leaked document showed that at best Euston won’t be reached until as long as 12 years later – in 2041!

Many of us have been round the block in transport for several decades now and I ask you, whether you have ever come across anything so utterly crass and pathetic as building a line which was originally planned to connect the major northern cities with the West Midlands and central London, being reduced in size to a Birmingham to Old Oak Common service, and one which only shaves 29 minutes off already decent journey times? This is a line which you can see already when travelling to the second city has damaged existing countryside, in a far worse way than the Hornby trees and lichen that I cut up to create my own pointless new route.

I welcome better links between Birmingham and London. However, the prospect of the route terminating at Old Oak Common fills me with concern.

I’m not going to re-open the debate about the merits of HS2. It’s been well documented and as a railway professional, of course, I’m going to be in favour of investment in projects for our sector. As the independent chair of the West Midlands Grand Rail Collaboration and Network Rail Supervisory Board – a partnership between those organisations responsible for the railway in the region and other key stakeholders with a vested interest in its success, I welcome better links between Birmingham and London. However, the prospect of the route terminating at Old Oak Common fills me with concern.

I have always been sceptical of ceding too much power to transport planners. Too often, their words are taken as gospel because they come across as untouchable academics, boffins who can spew out endless data and create a picture of paradisical bliss. They create spatial visions with words and illustrations showing great transport, together with tree-lined streets and enclaves of new affordable housing, continental-style coffee shops, boutique, upmarket shops and youth clubs for kids, so that they swap knives for table tennis. It’s a crime-free environment where everyone is happy, and GDP is enhanced like never before.

Public transport improvements do deliver regeneration, but they tend to gentrify locations, displacing social problems caused by exclusion and poverty, or concealing them on the fringes. Any walk around locations served by London Overground since its transformation post-2008 is instructive as to the impact, but there are other areas that haven’t fared as well since transport developments landed on their doorstep.

Cash-strapped and crime-ridden Croydon hasn’t enjoyed the rejuvenation that the advent of trams might have heralded and the journey to recovery for parts of Kent close to HS1 has been slow.

For years, planners were obsessed with Stratford being the epicentre of a future for London, buoyed of course by a mix of Docklands, London Overground, HS1 and the Olympics. They forgot, though, that just enabling transport lines to converge, doesn’t necessarily mean that folk are happy with it as a destination. Take away football at West Ham and the Westfield shopping centre and Stratford hasn’t got as much going for it as the planners might have envisaged. Culture, atmosphere, heritage, a legacy of tourist attractions and bright lights take time to develop and become embedded in the psychology of people – decades, if not centuries, and for this reason, folk will probably, in our lifetime at least, want to be plunged straight into Euston from the Midlands and the North.

There’s a romance about arriving off a train straight into the maelstrom that is the beating heart of a great city – a shuttle service over the last few miles just doesn’t have the same vibe

There’s a romance about arriving off a train straight into the maelstrom that is the beating heart of a great city – a shuttle service over the last few miles just doesn’t have the same vibe. Furthermore, one of the supposed benefits of HS2 was to alleviate congestion on existing routes, but this won’t do any favours for the existing Elizabeth Line, nor the West Midland Metro, which will transport customers from the new terminus in Birmingham’s Curzon Street into the city centre. The 29-minute anticipated journey time reduction between Birmingham and the heart of London will also shrink to a negligible level once shuffling between trains at both ends of the journey is considered.

Back to Old Oak Common and although the HS2 website makes play on the transformative impact that an HS2 station will have on the local community, I can only see this as marginal. Most folk, as with Stratford, will just be travelling through, making connections; does anyone genuinely believe that those living on the White City estate or deep in East Acton or Harlesden really will feel the benefit to their daily lives of a premium-priced railway that can take them to Birmingham? It’s a great place but is it somewhere they might not have the need or aspiration to visit more than a handful of times over a few years?

To put it politely, as a destination, it could take Old Oak Common several generations to become a place that folk genuinely wish to visit in its own right. Apart from Wormwood Scrubs and Queens Park Rangers F.C, there’s not a lot to draw outsiders right now – indeed, I’d argue the former is even more attractive than the latter! Once again, the problem is that these pesky planners’ eyes lit up when they saw in Old Oak Common, their textbook winning formula of ‘disused railway land + barren, open disused spaces + derelict industrial setting + outskirts of city + not too far from an airport + deprivation = fairy tale story of transformation. Of course, one might contest that this formula applied to Docklands, which has admittedly been transformed, albeit primarily as an economic workplace hub. However, the planners of the ‘70s and early ‘80s who were the architects of the Docklands regeneration, never envisaged Canning Town or Canary Wharf being the London terminus or even pivotal points on a new, expensive high-speed line connecting the capital with a major city. It’s madness, it really is.

Another ludicrous aspect of the whole Old Oak Common obsession is this neglect of those seeking to reach it from comparatively close-by locations to its north and south. Living, as I do, in Shepperton, to travel northwards seven miles to Heathrow and beyond to the Great Western Line or further beyond into Middlesex is next to impossible, and for this reason, almost all travel that requires crossing London, requires going into the heart of the capital. Unless there’s a direct railway line from Surrey and South West London to Old Oak Common, then I’ll always be travelling to Birmingham via Euston. Even West Midlands Trains with its stopping service, or from Marylebone on Chiltern seem more palatable than messing around in Old Oak Common. The same goes for folk living in Kent and other parts of the Home Counties.

Looking at HS2 very objectively, it does make me uneasy when I consider sectors that appear to be in a worse situation than transport, where the money spent on this new railway could make a real difference. I recently spent some time undertaking a customer service review of a large hospital and was overwhelmed by the sheer endeavour of staff in adversity and genuinely emotionally moved by the financial constraints within which they function. So too, I utterly despair at the sheer challenges faced by us all these days in booking GP appointments and when I see the travails that the police face against a backdrop of rising crime and falling numbers of officers, I am filled with real concern, bordering on alarm. As for defence spending in the context of Ukraine and an increasingly volatile geo-political landscape…

It would have been tempting to save the money on elements of HS2 to fund cheaper fares for those living in deprived areas of the country, as a way of combating the unstoppable path the railway is forging to become exclusively a means of travel for the rich

If, as we are led to believe, HS2 is about levelling up Britain and helping cure regional as well as class inequalities, I wonder whether diverting spending towards saving bus routes from being decimated would have a greater impact for the masses and their everyday lives, rather than a smaller minority who might once in a while wish to make a quicker and more expensive trip from London to Birmingham, despite existing alternative services being very palatable and, post-pandemic, with more than sufficient available seats. It would have been tempting to save the money on elements of HS2 to fund cheaper fares for those living in deprived areas of the country, as a way of combating the unstoppable path the railway is forging to become exclusively a means of travel for the rich.

If we are to keep investment in rail, then perhaps once and for all, addressing the bottleneck that is the approach to Birmingham New Street, or dealing with ageing and unreliable infrastructure on the busy freight and passenger route through Water Orton or improving reliability on freight routes circling Birmingham, would be better. Modernising stations and enhancing capacity further between Snow Hill, Moor Street and Banbury wouldn’t go amiss too. Or if there was loose change available beyond the West Midlands, then there are similar needy hitherto unsolved causes throughout the UK – the notoriously constrained Liverpool Street ‘throat’, flat-junctions across the South Eastern network, capacity issues between Surbiton and Waterloo and also on the Brighton mainline, as well as TransPennine congestion, ageing infrastructure per se which leads still to far too many temporary speed restrictions.

The list is endless and for every deserving cause in transport, there’s a ‘vanity project’ that conceptually gets planners and politicians aroused but beyond cosmetics, has little going for it – such as the East London cable car or the various ‘demand responsive’ bus schemes that have been trialled but haven’t been expanded because they are ultimately impractical and cost prohibitive.

I can get my head round HS2, even if I can just as easily see logic from detractors. What I cannot fathom is how the project was embarked upon and persisted with if there was ever any doubt that taking the route into central London was going to be possible. Even to embark on a major project with the prospect of Old Oak Common being a ‘temporary’ arrangement for 10 years seems nonsense. At least my pointless new route to Sadsea Bay is a bit of harmless fun. The folly that is Old Oak Common has the potential to be the most incompetent and patently stupid decision in the history of UK public transport.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Warner has over 29 years’ experience in the transport sector, having held senior roles on a multi-modal basis across the sector

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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