Overwhelmed by all this HS2 stuff going on at the moment? Us too, which is why we've simplified it in this short explainer.
What is HS2?
HS2 (full named High-Speed 2) is the proposed rail link between London and Birmingham, which then forks out to Manchester and Leeds. The project was due for completion between 2029 and 2033 — but as it stands, parts of the route have already been scrapped, and there is uncertainty over what will now see the light of day.
What was HS1 then?
That's the high-speed rail link between London St Pancras and the Channel Tunnel (but doesn't include the tunnel itself). It's been fully up and running since 2007, so at least we got that right.
What is the point of HS2?
There are three major boons to HS2:
- Improved connectivity between major UK cities
- Much needed freed-up capacity for other, more local, services running in and out of Euston
- HS2's zero carbon trains are infinitely better for the environment than, say, getting in your Range Rover and zooming up to Leeds.
Naysayers would argue that HS2 is damaging swathes of countryside, as well as demolishing various buildings and homes, forcing the relocation of businesses, and causing disruption to communities (more of which later). All understandable arguments, although you can't make a high-speed omelette without cracking a few eggs.
Where was the original Hs2 supposed to go?
The diagram above shows the original intended route of HS2, with trains between London and Manchester via Birmingham and Crewe, and between London and Leeds via Birmingham and East Midlands Parkway. Here's how much it would've saved in journey times:
- London-Manchester: 55 minutes
- London-Birmingham: 29 minutes
- London-Leeds: 20 minutes
Where is HS2 going now?
A very good question. As we write this, the entire project is up in the air. In November 2021, the branch from Birmingham to Leeds was officially scrapped. In February 2023, it was rumoured the project could now drag on until 2045 — 12 years over deadline. Now (September 2023), word on the grapevine is that the Tories may snip HS2 back to a truncated service running between Old Oak Common and Birmingham Curzon Street. (Better get swotting up on our things to do in Birmingham article then.) They've blamed everything from incompetence on the part of the HS2 company, to the war in Ukraine.
What is this Old Oak Common you speak of?
This 'super-hub' with 14 platforms — currently under construction in Acton — will eventually be the largest station in the country. (And will add to Acton's ridiculous number of train stations.) We visited Old Oak Common back in 2019, when it was little more than a brownfield site the size of Hyde Park — and progress is continuing apace, although the earliest it'd open would still be 2029. If the latest rumours are true, HS2 users might end up having to catch their train from here, rather than Euston.
So is HS2 even going to Euston anymore?
At this point, it's unclear if the new-look Euston station — complete with five and a half HS2 platforms — will ever be completed. Right now, construction at Euston is largely on standby, and while Rishi Sunak has claimed this is due to 'design issues', is the truth that the plug is about to be pulled? In the meantime, this part of central London continues to be one messy building site — with locals having to put up with this indecisive nonsense, while wondering if it was all for nought.
But... hasn't loads of work already been done on Euston station?
Quite a bit. The YouTube video above shows an aerial view of where it's at as of September 2023. If Euston's HS2 station no longer gets completed, we're in some serious white elephant territory. Plus, we'll never get to enjoy that golden Dorito-shaped roof we were promised.
Hang on, didn't they demolish loads of buildings in Euston for the HS2 station too?
They did. Among the victims was the much-loved real ale pub the Bree Louise, and the much-unloved office blocks that stood out the front of the station. In all, 60 acres of Camden has been affected, including the demolition of park and burial ground St James Gardens, houses and hotels. Many traders on Drummond Street had their businesses upended too. An old Northern line Euston tube station building — designed by Leslie Green — was also in the crosshairs, although we believe that hasn't yet fallen foul of the wrecking ball.
Is HS2 too Londoncentric?
Hahahaha. No. The idea was literally to link up major cities across the country. You can call the Elizabeth line Londoncentric if you like, but HS2? Surely not. This hasn't, however, stopped people like Tory MP Craig Mackinlay decrying HS2 as exactly that. That's like calling Barcelona airport 'Barcelonacentric' or Cape Canaveral 'Earthcentric'.
How much has HS2 cost so far?
The current projected cost of phase 1 (so London to Birmingham — and perhaps the only phase there will now be) is £44.6 billion. Originally, the entire HS2 project was estimated to cost £30 billion. That makes the Elizabeth's line final bill of £18.6 billion look like mere Monopoly money. They really need to start putting higher estimates on these things.
Would Labour finish HS2 if they got into power?
The Tories like to tell us there is no magic money tree (especially since Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng burned down a forest of money trees with their mini budget last year), but if Labour got into power at the next general election would it do anything different? Labour leader Keir Starmer has said that the current government needs to get on with delivering HS2, while the Labour Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has warned Rishi Sunak that if the Euston leg of HS2 is scrapped, London-Birmingham journey times will take just as long, if not longer. But while Labour is overtly pro-HS2, the party hasn't said exactly how it'd deal with the line — and it's unlikely we'll hear any hard and fast plans until there's a Labour government, with access to the full figures.
HS2 was a very good idea for a high-speed rail route that would link up major UK cities. Now the government is scrapping sections of it like a child pulling legs off a spider one at a time. To use another animal analogy, HS2 could wind up being the fattest, whitest elephant ever to lumber across Britain. Let's pray we're wrong about that.