The cancellation of the northern leg of HS2, the high-speed rail project supposed to link London with Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, has been a controversial decision that has sparked debate among politicians, businesses and environmentalists. One of the aspects that has received less mainstream press attention, says Mike Gratton of Accrington headquartered World Options, is how the cancellation could affect the future of the UK's freight and postal industry.
HS2 was designed to be more than just a passenger service. By moving long-distance traffic from the existing rail network onto HS2’s new high-speed line, it would have created extra room for improving local, regional and freight services. According to HS2 Ltd, the company responsible for developing and delivering HS2, the project would have provided space for an extra 20 freight paths on the West Coast Main Line (WCML), meeting a forecast rise in demand over the next 20 years.
Freight trains are vital for the UK economy, as they transport goods and materials across the country, supporting manufacturing, construction, retail and ecommerce sectors. Freight trains also help to reduce road congestion and carbon emissions, and HS2 Ltd has previously cited estimates that each freight train removes up to 76 lorries from the roads.
The freight and postal industry is expected to grow in the coming years, as online shopping and home delivery become more popular and convenient for consumers.
But without HS2, the existing rail network could struggle to cope with the increasing demand for both passenger and freight services. The UK’s rail network was built over 100 years ago, yet rail travel has more than doubled over the last 20 years. Further upgrades to current lines would cause significant disruption for passengers and lineside communities, and would deliver a fraction of the capacity as a new railway line. For example, according to HS2 Ltd, it is estimated that upgrading existing lines instead of building the first phase of HS2 would result in 2,700 weekend closures over 15 years.
If these estimates are to be believed, the cancellation of HS2 would mean the freight and postal industry in the UK would need to reconsider its approach to continue offering reliable, efficient and competitive services to its customers as demand increases.
Other factors, such as the adoption of EV technology for road transport in line with HS2’s cancellation, could also affect the freight industry's contribution to the UK's net zero emissions target.
On the other hand, some critics of HS2 have argued that the project was too costly, too disruptive and too risky for the environment, suggesting alternative solutions for improving rail capacity and connectivity in the UK, such as investing in digital signalling, electrifying existing lines, upgrading regional networks and developing new technologies such as maglev or hyperloop.
The cancellation of HS2 is a complex and contentious issue that has implications for various sectors and stakeholders in the UK. The freight and postal industry is one of them, and it faces significant challenges and opportunities in the future. Whether HS2 could have been a game-changer for this industry or not is a matter of debate, but what is clear is that a modern and efficient rail network is needed to thrive.
Mike Gratton is managing director of World Options Holdings Ltd which manages three brands in the UK; Mail Boxes Etc., PACK & SEND and World Options, providing ecommerce, fulfilment, shipping, virtual office, marketing and print solutions to SMEs and consumers. Companies within the group now maintain and support over 260 franchisees, generating combined annual revenues of £80m.
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