By Harry Fone, grassroots campaign manager at the TaxPayers’ Alliance
The government’s decision to scrap the eastern leg of High Speed Two may not have been an easy one, but the logic behind it was spot on. As secretary of state Grant Shapps laid out in his address to the Commons, “costs were rising” and he wanted to “bring benefits to local communities as soon as possible.”
That’s why we applauded the government for focussing cash on regional rail projects. This is the change of direction that we called for back in 2019 with The Great British Transport Competition (GBTC), which laid out alternative transport infrastructure that would give taxpayers more bang for their buck than HS2.
While we welcomed the Integrated Rail Plan on the whole, most of its attention was focused on the north. Of course, northern railways need upgrading - you’ll get no argument from me there. But the logic behind replacing HS2 with other projects applies just as much to the rest of the country too. That’s why we urged the prime minister to bite the bullet and go further. If he scrapped the entire HS2 project he could save a small fortune and offer much-needed upgrades across the whole network.
Indeed, Mr Shapps mentioned the newly reopened Dartmoor Line in his speech to parliament. The line will see regular services between Okehampton and Exeter; a reversal of a Beeching cut that saw it shut down in 1972. Under budget and ahead of schedule, it’s a great example of the tremendous benefits that much smaller projects can provide.
So with this in mind, what else could they now do to improve rail connectivity across the south of England - paid for by scrapping HS2.
Extend the line from Okehampton to Plymouth
The Great Western Railway is a triumph of engineering, but it’s still prone to the elements. Readers may be aware of the problems the line has experienced as it meanders along the coast in and around Dawlish. Coastal storms have caused huge disruption in the past and while it is hoped recent upgrades will help, there are no guarantees.
By providing an alternative line from Exeter to Plymouth via Okehampton, pressures can be alleviated on the existing line. It also has the added benefit of providing excellent railway connectivity for Tavistock - a major area of housing developments.
It’s had the support of Devon Council, Cornwall Council and the district councils affected. It's not hard to see why when the scheme will cost only £500 million - a drop in the ocean of the HS2 budget.
Improve freight connections from Suffolk
Railways aren’t just about ferrying commuters and passengers - freight by rail plays a vital role in the country’s economy too. Despite the effects of covid, rail freight is a growth industry and more capacity is needed. HS2 is regularly touted as the solution, but once again you don’t need to spend hundreds of billions of pounds to make big improvements.
Advancing improvements to the Felixstowe to Nuneaton (F2N) route will boost cross-country trains, especially freight services from Felixstowe to the North West, Midlands and Yorkshire. An increase in freight capacity means that each additional train could take around 76 HGVs off East Anglia’s roads as well as the M6 and M1.
There are more benefits too. Making use of existing track and routes results in minimal environmental disturbance. Currently, freight trains clog up passenger services; so freeing up capacity will potentially move traffic off the East Anglia road network. All of these benefits for £1.5 billion - compare that to an estimated £100 billion bill for HS2.
Enlarge the south east’s rail network
By restoring relatively small stretches of railway in Sussex, the network for the South East can be greatly improved and enlarged. The Brighton Main Line 2 (BML2) project requires rebuilding the seven-mile ‘missing link’ between Uckfield and Lewes, to provide a new direct route from Eastbourne, Seaford & Newhaven to London via Uckfield.
In addition, the construction of Ashcombe tunnel beneath the South Downs would be built to deliver a fast, direct link into the City of Brighton and Hove. This would put Falmer, the home of Brighton & Hove Albion Football Club (Amex Stadium) and the University of Sussex, on a main line to London and make these important and expanding destinations more accessible from Sussex, Surrey and Kent. Costing just £500 million, it could be completed in between 8 and 10 years, well ahead of the likely completion date for HS2 Phase One.
The choice is clear
These three simple projects would bring huge benefits to the South West, South East and East Anglia - all for £2.5 billion. This is exactly why Boris should scrap the rest of HS2 and free up billions of pounds for projects that will actually deliver palpable benefits for taxpayers across the country. If he needs some ideas of where to start, we’ve got a whole book full of them!