Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

The case for High Speed 2 (HS2)

Grand Central train

Yesterday the British government announced the route for the second phase of High Speed Two (HS2), a new high-speed main line which will connect London, Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield, together with links to the existing rail network and a ‘parkway’ station for the East Midlands to serve Derby and Nottingham. It follows on from High Speed One (HS1), completed in 2007, which connects London to the Channel Tunnel through Kent.

The plan is for a 250 mph railway leaving from an enlarged Euston station in London, towards Birmingham, where it will split into two branches – one to Manchester and one to Leeds. It’s this split north of Birmingham, the second phase, which was unveiled yesterday.

The project is controversial for several reasons. At £32 billion, it’s very expensive, and it will result in the demolition of a number of buildings, including, unfortunately, some peoples’ homes. It will also pass through the Chiltern Hills, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

As a public transport geek, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that I am generally in favour of HS2, and am reasonably confident that it will go ahead, despite the opposition against it. Here’s why.

The need for HS2

Britain needs HS2 because of rising demand for rail travel. We have one of the most intensively-used rail networks in Europe, and the number of passengers using train services is at record levels, and rising. But we were also the country that pioneered rail travel in the 19th century, which means that we have a Victorian network that, in a number of places, is struggling to cope.

The lack of peak time capacity has led to overcrowding on some routes, and meant that train companies have no need to reduce peak time fares, as demand exceeds supply. Meanwhile, you get towns like Northwich in Cheshire, which has had to lose many of its direct trains to Manchester to make way for faster services, because of a lack of capacity.

Simply put, we need more track to fit in more trains.

The trouble with upgrading existing lines

One of the alternatives that has been presented is the so-called ‘Rail Project 2‘ – an upgrade of the existing West Coast Main Line (WCML). This is the same West Coast Main Line that has already received an upgrade, completed in 2009. This eventually took 11 years and cost £9.6 billion, which was 400% over budget, and meant that some stations like Stoke on Trent were closed for 4 months during the works. Despite this upgrade, the WCML will again run out of capacity in around 10 years time.

Rail Project 2 will alleviate some of these problems but it focuses purely on the section of the WCML between London and Birmingham. This offers nothing to those in the East Midlands and Yorkshire, unlike HS2, and you would have similar issues to the previous upgrade, with major disruption to existing services during construction. In my view, if Rail Project 2 goes ahead instead of HS2, all that will happen is that the WCML will hit maximum capacity a little more slowly than it would if we did nothing.

And, in any case, the two needn’t be mutually exclusive. Once phase one of HS2 is open, this will take much of the long distance traffic off the WCML and allow it to be upgraded. Smaller upgrade projects on our railways are ongoing and the building of HS2 won’t affect these.

For example, on the East Coast Main Line (ECML), there are a number of smaller projects. South of York station, a fourth running track was added for a short distance under Holgate Bridge to remove a bottleneck. At Shaftholme, near Doncaster, a new bridge is planned to divert freight trains away from the ECML, freeing up some extra train paths. And at Hitchin in Hertfordshire, another new bridge is under construction that will allow trains from London King’s Cross to Cambridge to cross the ECML without conflicting with other services.

Then there’s the programme of electrification of railway lines. Work is ongoing between Liverpool and Manchester, with other lines in the north west next. Further south, the Midland Main Line and Great Western Main Line are also due to receive wires, along with commuter services in the Cardiff area in Wales.

Elsewhere in the north is the Northern Hub project, which is funded and will see upgrades to many of the main passenger lines across the north of England. As a result, we’ll see faster and more frequent train services.

And nationally, we’re due hundreds of new trains. Orders are in process for new Intercity Express trains for the Great Western and East Coast main lines, plus new commuter trains for the midlands, north west and London. We also need to scrap nearly 300 Pacer and Sprinter trains before 2020, when new requirements for disabled access come into force as these can’t feasibly be converted, so these will all need replacing.

All of these projects will happen regardless of whether HS2 goes ahead or not.

Ticket prices

There’s the assumption that whatever service runs on HS2, it’ll be too expensive for most people. Since it’ll be around a decade before the first trains run, we have no real idea about how much tickets will cost. The closest comparison we can do now is with the ticket prices for HS1, which are approximately 20% higher than the equivalent fares on slower services. Diamond Geezer has done some sums on this basis.

But earlier I mentioned how HS2 would free up capacity. If we reach a point where supply exceeds demand, even at peak times, then it’s possible that train fares will actually fall – particularly on the existing main line routes. As and when the first phase of HS2 opens, we’ll know more about how expensive or otherwise it’ll be to use it.

Environmental issues

Unfortunately, the building of HS2 will see some peoples’ homes being knocked down, for which there will be compensation and a hardship fund is being set up for those wanting to move but unable to sell their houses. This is inevitable, as it would be difficult for HS2 to serve the city centres of Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham otherwise. I have sympathy for those who would lose their homes.

I have less sympathy, however, for those living near the proposed development. The construction of HS2 will be disruptive, but once open, I doubt it will be the blight on the landscape that people expect. I speak from experience – my childhood home in York is a mere two fields away from the ECML, at a point where southbound trains accelerate. Around 8 trains pass each way every hour, and are in full view of the house. But you can barely hear the trains – especially not when the windows are closed, or when in the back garden.

There have been some claims that HS2 would increase carbon emissions. Officially, the government says the project would be carbon neutral, but other reports state that it could reduce emissions. The trains that would operate on HS2 would be electric, and not diesel, so there would be no emissions from the trains themselves. For the most part we still use fossil fuels for generating electricity but hopefully we will use more renewable energy sources in future, which will offset or reduce the carbon emissions.

And building HS2 would be much better for the environment than building a new motorway would be. Apart from the emissions from all of the fuel-burning cars and lorries using it, you would have constant noise and a much bigger land-take. Similarly the trains running HS2 will burn less fuel than the equivalent short-haul aeroplane flights that it is hoped it will replace.

The internet

£32 billion is, of course, a lot of money. Spent elsewhere, it could probably give every British resident fibre-optic broadband, for example. This would mean that everyone could do video-conferencing, rather than using the train to travel to meetings.

It’s possible, therefore, that investing in better internet infrastructure could reduce demand on the railways. But, at the moment, demand for rail travel is increasing, not falling, despite the existence of the internet in its current form. We could gamble, by spending money on improving internet access and hoping that travel demand will fall, or we could use data that we actually have and create more supply (i.e. build more railways) to meet the demand.

I’ve also heard the suggestion that, in 20 years time when the second phase of HS2 is open, that we wouldn’t need it because we’d be able to teleport. Whilst I appreciate that it’s a fictional film, consider the release of Back To The Future Part II in 1989, which predicted that in 2015 – two years away – we’d have flying cars and hoverboards. That didn’t really work out, did it?


The top speed for current trains in the UK is around 180 mph, which the Eurostar services from London to Paris and Brussels achieve on HS1. On HS2, we’re looking at even faster trains – 250 mph. Which of course means that any accidents could be catastrophic, due to the speed.

However, in Britain, the railway is generally seen as the safest form of transport. There have been no passenger deaths on Britain’s rail network in almost 6 years – the Grayrigg derailment was the most recent incident in 2007. Most other deaths on the railways are at level crossings, of which there won’t be any on HS2 as new railways don’t have them. And train safety systems have been improved over the years so that head-on collisions are less likely to happen.

Can we afford it?

Britain’s economy is pretty weak at the moment. In the last quarter of 2012, the economy shrank by around 0.3%; if it does so again this quarter, we’ll be back in recession for the third time since 2008 – an almost unprecedented ‘triple-dip recession’. Considering how much is being cut elsewhere, can we afford to spend £32 billion on HS2?

Well, probably yes. Countries are not like companies or people – theoretically they can carry on borrowing as long as the interest is paid. And £32 billion is about £2 billion per year for the lifetime of the project, which, co-incidentally, is what we’re spending on Crossrail each year. Construction of HS2 is planned to start once Crossrail has been completed, and whereas Crossrail only benefits London and its environs, HS2 will benefit large parts of the rest of England as well.

Plus, all the construction work will need people. It’ll create hundreds, if not thousands of jobs, and upon completion will hopefully support many more.

The political will

HS2 has wide political support. Whilst it is opposed by some MPs and affected local councils, nationally it has support of the three main parties. The initial plans for HS2 were formulated under the previous Labour government, and have been carried forward by the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. Even the Green Party is in favour, albeit with some alterations and a lower top speed. The UK Independence Party is apparently the only political party opposed to it, but at present UKIP has no presence in the House of Commons as it has no MPs.

Consequently, when the various bills are presented before parliament, I expect its passage to be relatively swift. Potential obstacles are likely to be in the form of legal challenges by the groups opposed, rather than political opposition.

Britain’s record in delivery mega projects like HS2 has been patchy – see the aforementioned WCML upgrade – but HS1 opened on time and on budget, and work on Crossrail is progressing well. I reasonably expect HS2 to be open and ready within 20 years, and for it to be a success.

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