Alistair Lenczner

Tunnel vision: does HS2’s Y-shaped plan really work for the North?   

The current proposal for HS2 sees it fork into a ‘Y’ shape at Birmingham, with one strand running to Manchester and the other to Leeds, but consultancy Expedition Engineering proposes an alternative solution that incorporates a trans-Pennine tunnel. Julian Turner talks to director Alistair Lenczner.


listair Lenczner is director of Expedition Engineering based in London. He has a background working across engineering and architecture, and specialises in major building projects, transportation design and infrastructure planning. Lenczner joined Expedition from Foster + Partners, and has worked on projects including Wembley Stadium, the Millau Viaduct and the Padre Pio Church in south Italy.

The interview below took place on the 13th June 2019.

Julian Turner: Please outline your ‘HS2 North’ proposal, which offers an alternative to the HS2 project plan.

Alistair Lenczner: 

HS2 was conceived as a North-South railway between London and the North of England via the midlands to overcome capacity constraints on the existing network and improve connectivity between the north and south of England.

The ‘Y’ diagram of the HS2 line map responds to the North-South railway objective – with separate branches north of Birmingham extending northwards to Manchester and Leeds, respectively – but it makes no attempt to address rail connectivity across the Pennines in the north of England.

My HS2 North strategy proposes that a new trans-Pennine tunnel be built allowing high-speed trains running into the proposed new Manchester Piccadilly HS2 station to continue towards West Yorkshire and be shared by HS2 trains from the south as well as fast Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) rail trains between Liverpool and Leeds.

Credit: Expedition engineering

How would a shared trans-Pennine tunnel improve train utilisation and save the public money? 

Typically, in order for a new high-speed rail line to represent good value for money, at least 10 trains per hour are expected to use the line in each direction. If a new trans-Pennine tunnel were to be used by both HS2 and NPR train services, the line passing through the tunnel would have a much better utilisation rate.

Whilst journey times to Leeds from London or Birmingham via the proposed HS2 North would be about five minutes or so longer than via the proposed eastern leg of HS2, the overall utilisation of the HS2 North line would be higher than that for the proposed HS2 Phase 2B lines and would therefore represent a better initial investment.

An analogy is the building of the high-speed line north of Paris, which, again, had separate objectives – one, a high-speed line to Brussels and the other, a high-speed line to London. In the end, the two routes were brought together; they share the same lines as far as Lille and then one line goes west towards the Channel Tunnel and the other carries on to Brussels from the junction south of Lille.

Geographically, the route goes almost 100 miles off the straight line from London to Paris, and is maybe ten minutes or so slower, but by combining the Brussels and London routes into one, the line utilisation from Paris as far as Lille is much higher than it would be if you built two separate lines.

How does your HS2 North proposal compare in terms of cost and quality of service?

I suspect there will be significant cost pressures with both the HS2 and NPR proposals, and that both will have to review costs and look to save money, as is the nature of such projects.

If you compare my HS2 North plan with the western arm of the HS2 Phase 2B, it is pretty much identical for the section from Crewe to Manchester. The difference would be that at Manchester the new high-speed station there wouldn’t be built as a terminus station, but would instead have up to four low-level through platforms to allow both HS2 and NPR trains to continue to Leeds through the trans-Pennine tunnel.

Rail users mostly care about the frequency and times of trains. Getting to Leeds, the end objective, by extending the branch from Manchester might be a little longer geographically and get passengers there maybe five to ten minutes later depending on where it stops, but it will still be a high-speed service from London or Birmingham to Leeds – and would ultimately result in higher utilisation along the whole length of the line.

Are the organising bodies behind HS2 missing valuable opportunities for collaboration?

Major infrastructure projects in the UK tend to be developed within separate ‘silos’, meaning that opportunities to realise the benefits of shared infrastructure across sectors and agencies are either overlooked or ignored.

HS2 is ultimately controlled by the UK Department for Transport (DfT), while NPR is being developed by the recently set up Transport for the North (TfN), a regional transport body dedicated to transport in the north of England. To date there has been little or no real exploration as to how they might share elements of combined infrastructure to make a more joined-up system that would benefit both projects in terms of overall construction cost, network connectivity, economic benefits and reduced environmental impact.

Take the proposed Fehmarn Belt Fixed Link from Germany to Denmark, for example; they are getting more value from the infrastructure by building both a railway and a highway together in the same tunnel crossing.

In the UK, there is no national strategic infrastructure plan that maps out how we plan to meet all our new infrastructure requirements for the next 30 years or so and you get less joined-up thinking about the infrastructure’s end users - in the case of rail this is the passengers. The fact that HS2 doesn’t join up with HS1 can be seen as a good example of what happens when there is no proper joined-up thinking.

Overall, there is a distinct danger that, as we are about to build a new high-speed rail network, we are going to adopt the same sub-optimal railway patterns that were established in the 19th century and in many instances still haven’t been overcome today. My HS2 North proposal is, in part, intended to stimulate a wider debate on how strategic infrastructure could be planned and delivered in a better way in the UK.

Are you optimistic that HS2 North will be taken seriously as an alternative to the existing HS2 and NPR programmes?   

HS2 North has been developed as an unsolicited proposal. It is not being submitted in response to any formal initiative set out by either the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) or the DfT; however, the HS2 North proposal is being shared with numerous parties who are likely to be interested in what the proposal could achieve in terms of potential cost savings and benefits.

To be clear: I am not against either HS2 or NPR – in fact I am very much an advocate for introducing new high-speed railways to the UK. What I am doing is drawing people’s attention to the fact that there are viable opportunities for more integrated infrastructure planning that people should be looking at but that haven’t yet been considered. I am asking that these be properly looked at before any final decision is made.