HS2 and Euston: when not making a decision is the right thing to do
We often claim that our infrastructure sector is plagued by Government indecision, with a tendency to put off until tomorrow what you don’t have to resolve today. This may be true but there may be occasions when such an approach is helpful. For example, let us look at the ongoing conundrum that is HS2 and Euston Station.
We have a stated objective of improving rail capacity between London and the West Midlands, and a wider objective for such infrastructure to boost the economy in general, and assist in re-balancing the national economy in particular, and with specific reference to the “Northern Powerhouse”.
These sound like straightforward objectives that we should be able to easily achieve with a new project, yet it has all begun to unravel, especially with regard to the London end of the project. The latest proposals for HS2 at Euston are well summarised in the articles by Andrew Gilligan of the Telegraph on the 12th and 19th of September. They articulate well why we are now faced with a seriously substandard solution (both in terms of micro and macro benefits), a spiralling cost, and an ever extending construction timeline.
In my view, this problem has arisen because the foundations of the scheme, laid many years ago, weren’t based on the right objectives. The original approach appears to have been replicate the present, just go a lot faster. Further, the background environment to the project, especially at the London end, has changed dramatically since the original project was developed.
We have the Davis Commission recommendation for Heathrow, yet a proposal for a new major rail link which still doesn’t take people directly from the north and midlands to our most important international business gateway, Heathrow. It is even less helpful for our second most important airport at Gatwick. In addition, we seem to have accepted that pursuing a terminus at Euston makes any onward connection to HS1 both technically very difficult and extremely expensive – again denying businesses in the north and midlands direct access to markets on the continent.
We have very recent experience from London Bridge of the chaos that arises when we try and undertake work at our over-crowded terminus stations. Imagine that over a decade or more at Euston!
Crossrail gives us confidence that tunnelling in London is technically deliverable at a cost effective price. In addition, the economic stimulation already being seen along the line, even before it opens, confirms the massive economic value of rail improvements that link across London (rather than terminating at the edge). We are already pursuing Crossrail 2, but with London population growing to surpass 10 million by 2030 it is clear we will need Crossrail 3 and Crossrail 4. One surely cannot plan for HS2 in London without taking this massive population growth into account, yet the current HS2 plans actually reduce platform capacity at Euston.
It is therefore no surprise to me that we are now hearing more and more, and with growing intensity, (with apologies to the crew of Apollo 13, Tom Hanks et al) “Euston – we have a problem”!
What we have seen over the last few years is a progression of attempts to retrofit an acceptable solution at Euston. Given, the fundamental underlying principles are flawed it is not surprising these are received with growing consternation. The more they try and apply sticking plasters, the worse it gets.
We now know the real cost of HS2 at Euston will be very significant, even if HS2 continue to present what can best be described as opaque costings. The latest scheme talks of around £2.2bn cost, but it would appear many elements have been excluded (land, Network Rail works, and wider disruption to London businesses, residents and commuters). A while ago a price tag of £4bn to £7bn was being talked about for Euston, and when one considers all the costs, and for a full capacity layout that doesn’t take platforms from commuters, it has hard not to come back to those original estimates. This is a long way from the initial estimates for Euston of £1bn. Oh, and if you terminate at Euston, Crossrail 2 has to be delivered – no ifs, no buts – the Victoria Line simply can’t handle the volumes predicted.
It is essential for the long term success of this country that we find the best solution for investments of this nature. Here at BuroHappold we have put our money where our mouth is and have started looking at alternatives to a terminus at Euston. In our opinion, that solution is a tunnel below London, linking HS2 in the west with HS1 in the east, and with underground Central London through running stations, with the potential to significantly out-perform the Euston terminus concept on all fronts (benefits, costs, and deliverability). With so many problems at Euston, and given that underground “through running” concepts were never considered when a Euston terminus was selected by HS2, we believe now is the time to take a deep breath, accept the wrong decision has been made, and take a fresh look at the longer term options for London.
Here at BuroHappold we have put our money where our mouth is and have started looking at alternatives to a terminus at Euston.
Which brings me back to the premise of this think-piece? The answer is actually simple – place any plans for a Euston terminus on hold while we reconsider what is best for both London and the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ – neither should have to put up with a substandard solution. This approach helps Mr Osborne balance the books in the short term and avoids many years of disruption for London. It also acknowledges an important issue which most people choose to ignore – forecasting passenger demand on new rail lines is extremely uncertain.
However, for Euston to be put on hold, we have to make Old Oak Common (OOC) work in the short term, create a robust way forward for re-appraisal of London options, and ensure what we do now at OOC creates a minimal disruption launch pad for any future onward link into (and across) London.
Reliance on Crossrail as the onward mode for those heading into central London from OOC is not the long term answer, but it can be made to work in the short term. There are also a lot of things that can be done to provide additional options and resilience for HS2 passengers at a relatively modest cost (at least in comparison to Euston) and, as importantly, with a lot less disruption. Then, if we start a re-appraisal of options now, and make these later London works beyond OOC an integral part of the works to extend the network north during the second phase, we should have an enough capacity to make OOC work as a temporary terminus. Further, given any solution is going to be a tunnel heading east after OOC, we can easily construct the line to OOC in a manner that allows onward extensions eastward beyond OOC to be delivered without impacting on the existing operations.
However, not having a plan B (or indeed several plan Bs) to address any further significant delays on adopting a solution for London, would be as bad as adopting a substandard Euston terminus today. One solution that makes an interim HS2 terminus at OOC work over a much longer period would be to enhance its connectivity to the Underground network. The most obvious option is a Bakerloo extension, via a tunnel, from Queens Park. With this solution, as HS2 passengers arrived at OOC, both Crossrail and Bakerloo line trains could be sitting empty, ready to move them on into central London. What is more, the Bakerloo, being a fundamentally north-south line through central London, would complement the east-west orientation of Crossrail. What of the cost you say? Well, the Northern Line Extension, which is a similar distance but actually has two new stations, is costing around £1bn, the original estimated cost of Euston. Further, this scheme could be delivered with minimal impact on existing services. It will also allow even greater densification of development at OOC in the long term, once an onward extension to HS2 is built, thus providing some new funds to ease the cost of construction.
Adopting a strategy of a temporary terminus at OOC would then give us time to do two things. First, we can see how the passenger numbers really are shaping-up. Second, we can have a fresh look at the best long term solution for HS2 at the London end. This should include the role a link to HS1 could play in both international and intra-regional connectivity, the role of Heathrow and any other airport in connecting this country to the markets we will need to access, and the regeneration role new stations in London could play in wider economic regeneration in the city.
For once, the correct choice is to not make a decision on Euston at present.
To find out more about our proposal visit our Cross City Connect page.