HS2 replacement revealed: A slow train to Manchester

North bound? London Northwestern could link the capital with Manchester  (London Northwestern Railway)
North bound? London Northwestern could link the capital with Manchester (London Northwestern Railway)

Call it a hunch if you like, but I have a sneaking suspicion there is just a chance that Mark Harper may no longer be transport secretary by the end of the week.

There seems to be a general election on Thursday. It is plausible that some of us who don’t own cars and instead rely on trains may not be duly grateful for everything the government has done to improve the railways. Other members of the electorate may have their own reasons for a change of administration.

Should that prove to be the case, this week’s announcement of a proposed HS2 replacement is the ideal epitaph for the government that committed the gravest act of infrastructure vandalism by scrapping the high-speed link beyond Birmingham to Manchester.

HS2 is desperately needed between the West Midlands and northwest England because of the dire lack of capacity on the existing Victorian railway. That is why there was 15 years of all-party agreement until Mark Harper’s boss, Rishi Sunak, scrapped it last October in a vain attempt to shore up electoral support.

Now son-of-HS2 can be revealed. Instead of frequent high-speed trains running on dedicated new tracks to a vastly expanded and modernised Manchester Piccadilly station, it is pretty much the opposite. London Northwestern Railway, which currently runs one stopping train an hour from Euston station in the capital to Crewe, wants permission to extend it to Manchester from summer 2026.

Declaration of interest here: I am a frequent user and big fan of London Northwestern Railway. The rail firm pushes the envelope of what are generally regarded as the limits of “outer suburban” trains. Most travellers use the company to places such as Milton Keynes, Leighton Buzzard and Northampton. But the train operator also has a useful service along the West Coast main line to Stafford and Crewe.

I like Avanti West Coast, too, but for a “walk-up” ticket or travel during the morning peak, London Northwestern usually wins my custom on price.

The company now proposes a London-Crewe-Warrington-Manchester service. For those of us prepared to take an hour longer between London and Manchester, this would be a cheap and cheerful alternative.

London Northwestern says: “Following the cancellation of the northern leg of HS2, these proposals will provide much-needed connectivity between Manchester, the West Midlands and London, with thousands of extra seats every day.”

It promises “fares up to 50 per cent cheaper than the main intercity train operator”.

The train would run to Manchester Victoria, not Piccadily – which itself is a good thing. The station serves the northern part of the city centre, and offers much better connections to a whole range of locations beyond Manchester without the need to change stations. It also has direct access to the excellent Manchester Metrolink (tram), without the need to disappear down several escalators into the bowels of Piccadilly station.

London Northwestern is far from alone in wishing to compete on the UK’s busiest intercity link.

Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group is hoping to return to the network it forged with “open access” links to Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and Glasgow. And FirstGroup hopes to expand its high-speed/low-fare/no-frills Lumo brand from the East Coast main line to the west. Ironically, the squeeze on capacity caused by the cancellation of HS2 means travellers will almost certainly not enjoy the benefits of free and fair competition.

Having killed off HS2, the government may welcome these moves to expand capacity and choice. I certainly do. But I am not sure I will be discussing them at length with Mr Harper.