Will HS2 be made cycle-friendly after all?

The Kenilworth Greenway, diverted and rebuilt for HS2. Photo: cc Stephen McKay
It has been a turbulent journey, but Cycling UK's policy director Roger Geffen is hopeful that efforts to make HS2 cycle-friendly may finally have paid off

It is 8 years now since Cycling UK (then CTC) first lodged a parliamentary petition against the High Speed 2 (London to West Midlands) Bill. That Bill, which became an Act (i.e. it was passed by Parliament) in 2015, effectively gave permission for the Government-owned company HS2 Ltd to construct Phase 1 of the HS2 railway.

As a cycling charity, we made it clear that we did not take a view on the pros or cons of HS2 itself. The aims of our petition were to ensure that HS2 Ltd would:

  • Seek opportunities to improve cycling conditions as part of any plans to build, alter or remove roads or other highways, including off-road rights of way, as part of the HS2 scheme;
  • Provide good cycle access to and parking at HS2 stations, worksites and other destinations which people might wish to reach by cycling; and
  • Require high standards of cycle safety to be considered in deciding the lorries, lorry operators and lorry routes to be used when constructing the HS2 scheme, including minimising the use of lorries as far as possible.

We were unable to include anything in our petition about the provision of cycle spaces on the trains, as the Bill was solely about the construction of the HS2 railway, not the running of services on it. However I'll come back to that.

Our petition led to some initial negotiations with HS2 Ltd, which went very positively. They resulted in Cycling UK being given some parliamentary 'assurances', made as part of the Bill, relating to our concerns. However, those assurances, though legally binding, were very imprecisely worded, particularly the one about what was then known as 'cycle-proofing' (i.e. designing good cycling conditions from the outset when planning new or altered highways, including rights of way).

I was aware at the time that this was a risk, but we simply didn't know enough detail about how the scheme would affect cycling to demand more precise assurances. Still, they had been negotiated in good faith, and I hoped that their spirit would be respected.

Sadly, I was wrong.

HS2 Ltd's highway design standards

Two years later, at a meeting of the Department for Transport's (DfT's) Cycle-Proofing Working Group, we were told that HS2 Ltd had adopted some highway design standards the previous year, without even advising us, let alone consulting us. We had to demand even to see them - and they were never made public. However, when we did get to see them (in confidence), the requirements for cycling infrastructure fell far short of the best practice design standards that our assurances had led us to expect HS2 Ltd to follow (n.b. at that time, UK 'best practice' consisted of Transport for London's London Cycling Design Standards, and the first version of the Welsh Government's Active Travel Act design guidance).

In fact, HS2's design standards were far worse than the cycling infrastructure design guidance that the DfT had issued in 2008 - this was then still current, but was already horribly out of date.

So we took the opportunity to lodge a second parliamentary petition, this time against the Bill for Phase 2a of the HS2 scheme (i.e. from the West Midlands to Crewe). But before coming to that, let us pick up another strand to this story.

The HS2 Cycleway

Back in 2014, Boris Johnson - who was then Mayor of London - had joined Chris Boardman in calling for a cycleway to be built along the corridor of the HS2 railway line. Mindful that the then Prime Minister David Cameron had recently promised to deliver a 'Cycling Revolution', the Government commissioned a feasibility study into the idea.

Better still, they assembled a formidable team to carry out the study. Alongside Dutch consultancy Royal Dutch Haskoning, they also enlisted the services of Phil Jones of transport consultancy Phil Jones Associates and John Grimshaw, the founder and original chief executive of Sustrans, who is now running the charity Greenways and Cycleroutes.

Phil is probably the UK's leading expert on cycling and walking design standards. He co-authored both editions of the Welsh Government's excellent Active Travel Act design guidance, and later co-authored DfT's recently published guidance on Cycling Infrastructure Design (of which more anon). As for John, he never ceases to amaze me with his encyclopedic knowledge of how to connect up existing paths and tracks to create good off-road cycle routes, anywhere in the UK.

A year after the HS2 Cycleway study was commissioned, the then transport minister Robert Goodwill MP was talking enthusiastically about the project. However he also said, entirely correctly, that the crucial part of the project wasn't the idea of a linear route - after all, there aren't that many people who want to cycle from London to Birmingham and on to Manchester. The really important part was (and still is) the local connections that will be created, particularly where these involve crossing the line of HS2. After all, if bridges and tunnels are built for HS2 to be crossed by 60mph single-carriageway roads with no cycle provision alongside them, it will never be possible for children living on one side of the line to cycle to schools on the other side of the line. This is a key argument I have been stressing throughout this process.

Unfortunately, the HS2 Cycle study wasn't published until 2018. It then at appeared with lots of caveats about how neither the Government nor HS2 Ltd were committed to actually funding the project.

Contempt from Parliament

Meanwhile, I was still doing battle with HS2 Ltd over their woefully inadequate design standards. I hoped that, once we got to present our Phase 2a petition to Parliament, it would allow us to highlight how HS2 Ltd's awful cycling design standards were totally at odds with the Government's efforts to persuade councils in England to adopt much higher design standards!

Unfortunately, the chair of the HS2 Bill Committee in the Commons was notoriously contemptuous towards petitioners from community groups. He was equally contemptuous towards myself, John and Phil, when we got to present our petition in July 2018. It didn't help that one of the key Brexit votes was due to be taken within half an hour of the start of our evidence session, and he clearly wanted us out of the way as quickly as possible. I deeply regret that Phil and John were put through the humiliation he meted out to us.

A happy coincidence...

Still, I wasn't to be put off, and decided to have another go when the Bill was considered by another Committee in the Lords. This time, we got more luck with the timing of our petition hearing.

By a fortuitous coincidence, it was scheduled to take place on the very day that DfT published its excellent new Cycling Infrastructure Design guidance - which Phil Jones had largely written for DfT. So I got to argue that DfT was about to shoot itself horribly in the foot, if it was urging councils in England to follow this new guidance, while allowing HS2 Ltd to follow something that was even worse than the terrible old design guidance that DfT had just dropped!

At this point, DfT could ignore us no longer. Whilst HS2 Ltd continued to voice concern about who would pay for any upgrades to the design specification that they had been working to, they were gradually coming round to being positive about cycling.

...and the prospect of a happy ending?

HS2 Ltd has now adopted some much better cycling infrastructure guidance - though this too is not public.

Then, a month ago (in early April 2022), the All Party Parliamentary Group on Cycling and Walking scheduled a public meeting that was, most unusually, to be addressed by not just one but two ministers: Trudy Harrison MP (the minister for cycling and walking) and Andrew Stephenson MP (the minister for rail, including HS2). There were rumours that they would be making an announcement about making HS2 cycle-friendly.

Unfortunately the meeting was postponed at the last moment. But shortly afterwards, an article appeared in The Times suggesting that, behind the scenes, Government backing for the HS2 Cycleway project was now in place. However, it also suggested that some foot-dragging from No.10 had prevented this from being made public.

Given Boris Johnson's previous backing for the HS2 Cycleway idea, I very much doubt that he is responsible for this set-back. I think it more likely that advisors in No.10 were simply nervous about even mentioning HS2 in the run-up to this week's local elections.

I therefore hope that an announcement will be made soon, so we can see the details. Whatever one's views on the pros and cons of the HS2 scheme itself, it is strongly in the Government's interest for HS2 Ltd to be seen by local authorities as a model of best practice in delivering world-class cycling infrastructure. That would be a huge turn-around from where it was five years ago.

What about cycle carriage on the trains?

But even if and when that announcement is made, we will still need to tackle the question of whether HS2 will have good provision for taking pedal cycles on the trains themselves. Here we probably have another legislative opportunity coming up.

When transport secretary Grant Shapps appeared before the Commons Transport Select Committee last week (on 27 April 2022), he confirmed that next week's Queen's Speech will include a Transport Bill, which will include provision to introduce his planned reforms to Britain's railways (see his answer to question 190).

Assuming so, Cycling UK will be look to ensure that the legislation includes clauses to require the provision of ample cycle space on all new and refurbished trains, and other measures to make it easier to combine cycling and public transport.

After all, the Government's admirable 'Gear Change' vision for cycling and walking contains some admirable promises about combining cycling and rail (see particularly page 25). After all the nightmares suffered by people trying to travel by cycle and rail over the past 25 years or so, it would surely make sense to write into law some provisions to make sure the Govenrment's promises are kept.

I will have more to say about this and other aspects of the Transport Bill in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, I hope the Government will finally announce its plans to ensure that HS2 is cycle-friendly, now that the local elections are safely out of the way!