HS2, a high speed rail line between London and the north, doesn't sound like it'll affect us much — after all, why would we want to leave the greatest city in the world, never mind to visit Birmingham (sorry Birmingham)? But the line, plans for the first stage of which are currently going through parliament, will terminate at Euston, have an interchange at Old Oak Common and cause disruption in Camden.
We spoke to Christian Wolmar a little while ago, during his campaign to become Labour's candidate for Mayor of London. He has much to say on the subject of HS2 and very little of it is good. "I’d like a project I could support, but HS2 really is an ill thought out scheme," says the transport journalist. "It’s the wrong line in the wrong place going at the wrong speed, built in the wrong way. I’m not against the concept of a high speed line. In Germany they have a high speed line that’s very integrated with the existing network so it’s much more connected. And HS2’s got a terminus that they haven’t decided what they’re going to do with. How do you start a bill through parliament and they haven’t actually decided what they’re going to do at the southern end?"
The current plan for Euston is to build six new platforms to the west of the existing station (and give the rest of it a much needed makeover). That's going to involve the demolition of three blocks of council homes in the Regents Park Estate, though all tenants will be rehoused locally in new homes, built by Camden and funded by HS2.
Cyclists will be happy to hear of plans for up to 5,000 bicycle parking spaces by 2033. Camden Council is concerned about the loss of open space — but if London's going to encourage cycling, those bikes have to be left somewhere.
Another argument against Euston is that it doesn't properly link up with HS1 — i.e., the fast line through Kent and onto Europe. Wouldn't it be a better idea, some critics say, to run into St Pancras, so passengers for Eurostar don't have to wheel their suitcases down Euston Road? HS2 responds that the tube hop to King's Cross is no worse than changing terminals at Heathrow, but we think there's a different mindset when travelling by air and train.
Campaigners say Euston would need to be closed for 19 weekends during the works; to which people affected by Thameslink work around London Bridge may be tempted to say 'diddums'.
There's also a chance that the Euston Arch could be rebuilt, but we're not terribly fussed about that anyway.
Camden Council isn't happy with the current plans for HS2, mainly because of the disruption to people living and working in the borough.
As well as the tunneling (much of HS2 in London will be underground) and ventilation shafts which will require demolition of existing buildings, utilities will have to be shifted where they interfere with construction and there'll be significant amounts of noise and extra lorries on the roads. There are particular concerns about the effect on Drummond Street's restaurants and other businesses, as well as an increase in air pollution.
The council opposes the plans as they currently stand, though is pragmatically working for a series of mitigation measures should the project go ahead (or rather, when it does).
Old Oak Common
There's going to be huge transformation at Old Oak Common, brought partly by the joint HS2 and Crossrail hub that's due to open by 2026. 24,000 homes are slated for development, with the first 9,000 already on the drawing board. (Not that anything much is going to happen before 2021.) We can also look forward to this section of the Grand Union Canal being spruced up and made more pleasant for lingering.
The north-south divide
There's also an issue of how HS2 will affect London's relationship with the rest of the country. When we interviewed her before the general election, Natalie Bennett reiterated the Green Party's opposition to the line. "It’s in London’s interest to have a whole range of strong regional economies in England and beyond, [to be] more balanced with London than they are now," she explained. "HS2 will focus people, money, resources even more on London than it is now." Which would put even more pressure on housing, local transport and services.
This seems counterintuitive; surely HS2 will enable people to leave London just as easily as it allows them to travel down? Christian Wolmar was able to elaborate. "What they’ve done is build a lot of ‘parkway’ stations," he says. "What do you do with parkway stations? If I’m travelling to Leeds, I want to go into the centre of Leeds. But if you live in Leeds, it’s very handy to drive to a parkway station and then take the train in. But you wouldn’t do that the other way round. So it’s an ill conceived railway."
Leeds is a bad example here, because the proposed Leeds station for phase two is only a five minute walk from the existing station. But the proposed station for the 'East Midlands' is at Toton, halfway between Nottingham and Derby; while the Sheffield station actually calls at Meadowhall, the shopping mall that's very close to the M1 but takes another train journey of around 10 minutes to get to Sheffield itself. But the point about parkway stations is this: if you want to travel from north to south, they're handy. If you want to travel from south to north, you may well wind up in the middle of nowhere (sorry, Toton) — assuming, of course, that plans for phase two don't change.
We wanted to know what people outside of London think about this, so we asked Centre for Cities. Ben Harrison, Director of Partnerships, said
"HS2 has the potential to have major economic and social benefits for the places it connects, but only if places are able to make the most of it. That means ensuring that the new line is effectively integrated into existing, local transport networks, and exploring how the new infrastructure could drive wider economic and physical regeneration.
“Currently, the risk is that too many of the planned HS2 stations are not located within city centres. This won’t just cause inconvenience for people hoping to use the new train line in those cities, but will also undermine some of the big advantages that HS2 could offer to city-centre businesses, which will only benefit from the new line if they can easily access it."
However, the issue of parkway stations aside, HS2 chairman David Higgins insists the network will be good for the whole country. "The existing pressure on housing, commercial property prices and transport in London and the south east has become a vicious circle which is counter-productive for both the economy in general and for individuals and their families," he says.
HS2 will take long distance trains off the existing Euston-Birmingham line, freeing up space for commuter rail to the north of London. The team at HS2 also points out that the final plan actually puts Birmingham at the heart of the network, not London. Higgins says that "by creating extra capacity for commuter trains in the South, and making it easier for businesses to establish themselves in the Midlands and North, HS2 can both reduce pressures, and spread prosperity, and jobs, more evenly across the country."