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NIC review: ‘do nothing’ scenario for rail infrastructure in cancelled HS2 area ‘not sustainable’ | New Civil Engineer



The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has warned that not upgrading rail infrastructure north of Birmingham in the area that the cancelled High Speed 2 (HS2) Phase 2 was due to serve is not a sustainable option.

The NIC’s annual Infrastructure Progress Review for 2024 paints a stark picture of what the government’s decision to cancel HS2 Phase 2 could do to transport infrastructure in the north.

The report, in general, calls for a concerted catch up programme accelerating policy implementation and delivery to ensure the country’s infrastructure is fit for the future.

Rail connectivity

Where HS2 is concerned, the Commission stated: “Existing infrastructure is a constraint on future passenger and freight growth. Capacity and connectivity cannot be materially improved north of Birmingham without further infrastructure investment.”

The report continues: “Scrapping the second leg of HS2, without putting in place a concrete plan for improving connectivity and capacity in the North and Midlands, creates uncertainty which will inhibit economic growth in the affected regions.”

Speaking during a press briefing on the review, NIC chair John Armitt said: “If we don’t add extra capacity between Handsacre and Manchester, we’re going to constrain that growth and we’re going to constrain the whole objective of interconnectivity between our cities.

“We’re not suggesting that HS2 Phase 2A [between Birmingham and Crewe] has got to be reinstated but we are saying you can’t ignore the capacity constraints and you are going to need look at the different ways in which that capacity can be improved going forward.”

This echoes concerns from mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham and former mayor of the West Midlands Andy Street, who put together their own proposal for new rail connections between their urban hubs to replace HS2.


NIC Infrastructure Review 2024: Schematic representation of the rail network between major cities in the North and Midlands, showing speed and usage. Cities selected are those in the North and Midlands with a built-up area population of over 500,000

To enable passenger growth in the future, the NIC report warns “a ‘do nothing’ scenario north of the proposed [Handsacre junction] is not sustainable”, while also noting that major improvements to both inter-urban transport and local transport networks are affordable within spending limits set for the commission by government.

Where this is concerned, the report asked the government to commit £22bn in funding for major transport projects in cities from 2028 to 2045. The initial focus of this funding should be cities which are likely to have the greatest need for increased capacity, the commission states, suggesting these cities are Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds and Manchester.

The report further discusses how connecting HS2 with Euston is imperative to enable future growth of transport destinations outside of London.

It states: “Permanently terminating High Speed 2 services at Old Oak Common has not been planned for and would provide poorer connectivity to many onward destinations in London.

“This is due to the poorer north-south connectivity offered by the Elizabeth Line at Old Oak Common in comparison to the multiple options provided by a HS2 service stopping at both Euston and Old Oak Common.”

Recent reports suggest that the government is on the brink of giving the green light on connecting HS2 to Euston by committing over £1bn of public money to build the tunnel from Old Oak Common to London city centre.

The report continues to say how HS2 terminating at Old Oak Common also presents a greater resilience risk in the case of disruption on, or closure of, the Elizabeth line, as there are fewer alternatives at Old Oak Common for onward travel.

It says: “If HS2 terminated permanently at Old Oak Common, this would further increase the number of users on the Elizabeth Line travelling east to London, limiting its potential to support wider passenger growth in future.”

In its recommendations to the government where transport is concerned, the Commission suggests the government bring forward a comprehensive and long term plan for rail as part of an integrated interurban transport strategy.

It states: “The plan should first prioritise the maintenance and renewal of the existing network including providing appropriate levels of resilience to climate change impacts.

“It should also set out how rail improvements will address the capacity and connectivity challenges facing city regions in the North and Midlands and in turn how this can support improved economic outcomes.”

Industry reaction to rail recommendations – ‘A warning shot’

The Railway Industry Association (RIA), the voice of the UK rail supply community, described the report as “a warning shot to both current and future governments about the need for more investment in rail capacity in the decades ahead”.

RIA chief executive Darren Caplan said: “The report clearly says that without investment in transport infrastructure like rail, growth in cities around the country – particularly the North and Midlands – would be constrained, and it cites the recent RIA-commissioned Steer report forecasting that rail passenger demand will grow between 37% and 97% to 2050, depending on which policies are adopted in the coming years.

“RIA has consistently warned that the absence of a strategy for north-south rail capacity and regional connectivity risks holding the country back, whether the economy, connectivity, local growth, or the UK’s ability to deliver net zero.

“The commission rightly calls out the lack of a coherent long-term plan for rail along with a steady and delivery pipeline.

“Its analysis shows how a visible long-term pipeline of rail renewals and enhancements is crucial for local authorities and the supply chain, to be able to plan and attract private investment.

“The report also says the government had not met its objective to make decisions and stick to them, with changes such as cancelling the later stages of HS2 exacerbating uncertainty for both businesses and investors.

“RIA has been regularly calling for a clear long-term strategy and full pipeline information, and we urge policy makers both now and in the future to heed this call, make decisions and stick to them.”

A spokesperson for the High Speed Rail Group said it “welcomes the NIC’s latest Infrastructure Progress Review”.

They continued: “Government’s failure to implement plans for HS2 that have carefully negotiated the Parliamentary approval process is inexplicable. It will hold the country back economically, hinder growth and widen regional inequality.

“A coherent long term plan for rail investment, including new lines where they offer best value for money, is needed to address capacity issues that arise both on main line railways, and on the motorways that parallel them. The direction of travel in policy terms must be to attract more car users and more road freight off our motorways and on to better, more reliable, rail services.

“HSRG supports this NIC report in its view that the need for a comprehensive plan to fix our railway connections is pressing.”

NIC on energy infrastructure

While the NIC report believes much work must be done by the government on transport interconnectivity across the whole country, it states there has been some progress in the adoption of renewable energy sources to decarbonise the grid.

Armitt said: “I think the first thing to say is we have seen good progress in renewables. We have seen the success of the Contract for Difference process in offshore wind.

“I use the app, which tells me every day, every hour where our electricity is coming from and you do see days where you’ve got as much as 60% coming from renewables.

“Now you wouldn’t have seen that in 2019 so I think we are seeing good progress in the development of renewables that needs to continue.”

The report notes the share of electricity generated from renewable sources has grown to a record 47% in 2023 and there have been welcome moves to accelerate the rollout of transmission infrastructure to get electricity where it is needed, but changes to the planning system for onshore wind developments are not sufficient for this source to meet its potential.

In its second National Infrastructure Assessment, released last year, the Commission calculated that public investment in infrastructure will need to reach around £30bn a year over the coming decades (up from around £20bn a year in the past decade), alongside an uplift in private investment to around £50bn a year.

Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) interim associate director of policy David Hawkes said: “Today’s Infrastructure Progress Review (IPR) NIC presents a mixed picture.

“While nearly half of electricity generated in 2023 was from renewable sources, demand for water hasn’t fallen, and the UK is behind on improving its climate resilience and decarbonising how it heats homes and buildings.

“As the ICE stated at the spring Budget, there are lots of questions about how the UK is going to pay for the infrastructure it needs and deliver positive outcomes for the public when, in real terms, capital spending for 2025/26 will not increase.

“If quick, decisive action is taken, costs will be lower. Inaction will mean the public will pay more in the long run, and these challenges aren’t going away.

“The ICE recommends the Treasury Select Committee holds a one-off evidence session so that ministers can respond to the recommendations made by the NIC.

“To meet the country’s economic and environmental ambitions, it’s important that policymakers listen to the NIC’s advice and provide strategic direction so the country can continue to make progress.”

A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “We disagree with the NIC’s assessment.

“The facts changed around HS2 – that’s why we changed our approach and are now reallocating £36bn saved from the second phase into transport projects that will boost economic growth and benefit more people in more places, more quickly, including an unprecedented £4.7bn to put more power into the hands of local leaders to invest in ambitious schemes that deliver the most benefits for communities.

“Having engaged extensively with local leaders on how best to improve rail connectivity in the North, we are prioritising the delivery of Northern Powerhouse Rail to transform East-West rail connectivity from Liverpool right across to Hull. Thanks to reallocated HS2 funding, we are now able to include Bradford, Sheffield and Hull in this transformative programme.”

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