High Speed Boondoggle

Bob Foster questions the point and purpose of HS2.

THE Government recently announced the proposed route for Phase 2 of High Speed 2, also known as HS2, which is the new high-speed railway line planned to link London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds with trains running at up to 250mph. The Government tells us that this “vital investment” will narrow the North/South divide, cutting journey times from London to Birmingham and the
North, generate tens of thousands of jobs and be an engine for economic growth and regeneration. Poppycock.

United-Kingdom-HS2-Route-Map1On the surface, high speed rail seems like a wonderful idea. Fast trains whisking people from London to the regions in comfort without resorting to domestic flights. Our own version of the TGV or the Japanese Shinkansen. Unfortunately one doesn’t need to look too far below the surface to find no end of flaws in the plan. Many people dismiss opposition to HS2 as simple “NIMBYism” by middle class Tories in rural constituencies, but it goes far beyond that. In any number of ways, HS2 just doesn’t make sense.

First of all there’s the cost. The Government estimates that HS2 will cost £32 billion to complete. While we are supposed to be making cuts to reduce our eye-watering deficit, the Government plans to spend thirty two billion pounds building a railway. Not upgrading the existing railway, or improving the road network, or increasing airport capacity, but building one high-speed railway line. Based on the woeful inaccuracy of previous Government spending estimates, I wouldn’t be surprised if the actual cost of HS2 turned out to be nearer £50 billion by the time it is finished. That brings me neatly on to my next point.

“When it is finished” will be, according to the Government, 2026 for the initial section to Birmingham and 2032 for the remaining route to Manchester and Leeds. We’re going to spend £32 billion on a railway that won’t be finished for another twenty years and that won’t even start to deliver any tangible economic benefits until then. The Government says it is important that we take such long-term investment decisions now. After all, if the Victorians hadn’t taken similar decisions we would not have had the railways. No, but then the Victorians didn’t have an alternative method of travelling between towns. Today we have trains, cars, coaches, buses and flights, not to mention the telephone, internet and video conferencing. For the Victorians, you either walked or if you were rich you rode a horse and journey times were measured in days. For them, the railway was a revolution. You could travel vast distances in a matter of hours. HS2 will shave thirty minutes off of the journey time from London to Birmingham, or an hour off the journey time from London to Manchester or London to Leeds. Hardly revolutionary. One could flippantly suggest that if one is that desperate to shave a little time off their train journey, perhaps they could get an earlier train?

What the Government also forgets is that the railways were originally built by venture capitalists and industrialists. Private money built the railways because investors saw the benefits of doing so. In fact, the only main line that Government has ever built in this country is High Speed 1 (HS1), formally the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, in Kent. Ministers claim that HS1 made £2 billion for the Treasury when the rights to operate it for the next 30 years were sold, but it cost the taxpayer over £10 billion to build. Only Government would try and say that a project that made a loss of £8 billion was value for money, and funnily enough the National Audit Office disagrees with them. They found that the predicted passenger numbers and potential revenues were exaggerated, and that the line would not generate sufficient economic benefits to meet the cost of building it.

The Government claim that reduced journey times will increase business productivity. Less time spent travelling means more time spent working. This is based on the frankly ludicrous assumption that people do not work on trains. This is so ridiculous an assumption that it would be laughable if it did not form part of the business case for spending £30bn+ of taxpayers’ money. Working on trains has been commonplace for over fifteen years, ever since the first practical laptops and mobile phones came into common use. Today, the combination of wireless internet, laptops, iPads, Blackberries and smartphones make the train a regular working environment for tens of thousands of business travellers every day. For the Government to assume that travel time is unproductive is farcical, and if you take that assumption away then the business case falls apart extremely quickly.

Another aspect of reduced journey times is the location of the stations. Provided one is travelling to a destination near to one of theHS2 high-speed rail network termini then you can benefit from fast trains. If you have to connect then you’re less fortunate. Not only that, but many of the stations will be located on the outskirts of the destination towns or even outside them completely, with connecting services to town or city centres. Birmingham is one example, but the most ridiculous is Toton, which will become the “East Midlands Hub”. It will take just 19 minutes to travel from Birmingham to the East Midlands Hub, but Toton is in the middle of nowhere. Currently the only things to see are some freight sidings and a diesel locomotive depot. To get to Derby or Nottingham, one will have to join the connecting shuttle service, which will take 12 minutes. The journey time, therefore, is not 19 minutes, but 31. Add in some waiting time between services, and you’re looking at 40-45 minutes. The current journey time from Birmingham New Street to Derby is 38 minutes, and to Nottingham a shade over an hour. All that extra cost, not to mention a premium fare, to save little more than 15 minutes off  the time to Nottingham and to actually take longer to reach Derby. That doesn’t seem like value for money for me. For further proof, one need look no further than HS1, where commuters have actually seen their journey times increase since the introduction of high speed trains. Non-high speed trains have been slowed down to encourage people to use the high speed service, and when people do pay the premium to use the high speed service the additional time taken to travel to and from the HS1 stations more than eliminates any potential time saved.

The location also raises an issue of how people benefit if they don’t live near to one of the stations. My parents live in rural Warwickshire, near to the HS2 route. For them to use HS2 and benefit from a 49 minute journey time to London, they would first have to drive to the station. That drive takes a minimum of 45 minutes, plus at least ten minutes waiting for the train. That makes the total
journey time of roughly 1 hour and 45 minutes, and that’s before you take into account travelling from Euston to their ultimate destination. Alternatively they could just get the normal West Coast service and get to London inside an hour, or drive to London down the M40 in no more than an hour and a half. What about me? I live in Preston. Could I benefit from HS2 if I travelled to London
via Manchester? The short answer is no. The travel time from Preston to Manchester is about 45 minutes. Add in the ten minute transfer time, plus 1 hour and 8 minutes to get from Manchester to London, and you’ve got a journey time in excess of two hours. Alternatively there’s the West Coast service, which gets me direct to London in two hours. It’s a no-brainer.

One final point about location is the fact that HS2 covers so little of the country. It connects London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, but ignores the whole of the South of England, the West Country, Wales, Scotland, the East of the country and anything north of Manchester. Taxpayers living in those areas, also known as “the majority of the country”, will be shelling out their share
of the £32 billion+ cost with absolutely no benefit whatsoever. They may as well buy a train set; it would be as much use to them.

Flybe-BAe-146-aircraft-007The illogicality of HS2 doesn’t end there. In the recent announcement, the Government declared that the proposed spur linking HS2 to Heathrow would be put on hold pending the completion and publication of their assessment of future airport capacity. The one and only positive part of this saga, the one thing that could even hope to meet the Government’s objective of getting people off  short-haul domestic flights, was the potential for foreign business people to arrive in the UK at Heathrow and then board a high speed train straight to London, Birmingham, Manchester or Leeds. In order to make the same journey without the spur, visiting business people would need to get the Heathrow Express to London Paddington, then the Tube to Euston, then HS2 to their destination. Alternatively of course they could just get onto a domestic flight at Heathrow, which is precisely what they do today. This becomes even more ridiculous when you throw the oft-touted possibility of “Boris Island” – a new hub airport in the Thames estuary. If the airport capacity report recommends that such an airport is built, it would be on the opposite side of Greater London to HS2. In order to use it, people flying into the hub would need to get a slower train and probably the Tube all the way across Greater London to Euston before they could board HS2. Does this make sense? No, it doesn’t. If faced with the choice of a cross-London journey on multiple trains or simply hopping on a domestic flight, people will hop on the domestic flight every time.

One thing that you’ll note from what I have written so far is I have not mentioned the impact on the landscape. Truth be told, that isn’t an issue for me. There will be a great deal of inconvenience while it is being built, but a massive chunk of the route will be in tunnels and once it is built it will be no more conspicuous than the existing railway lines. No, my objection to HS2 is the fact that the numbers simply don’t hold up to even the slightest scrutiny. It does not make economic sense to spend such a vast amount of taxpayers’ money on high speed rail that will benefit such a small section of the population at a time of public sector austerity, nor does it make sense to build it at a time when there are so many technologies in use and under development that render it obsolete. If we are going to spend this money then it would be better to invest it in improving the existing rail network across the whole of the country and in boosting airport capacity. Only then will we start to see real economic development in the UK.


Born in Yeovil, Bob Foster moved to the West Midlands, and following a brief spell in Dublin after university now lives in the North West. When pushed he describes himself as socially liberal, fiscally conservative, pro-military and anti-Government. His passions are American history, military history and defence policy, and when he doesn’t have his nose in a book on air power or a political memoir he can be found building model aircraft and warships. He works in the defence industry, but speaks for himself. He tweets as @Bobski1984


  1. There is no flight from Heathrow to Leeds, so businessmen who are foolish enough to use LHR to get to Yorkshire rather than Manchester (or even Amsterdam) have to go through London at present. A minimum of 3.5 hours.

  2. The DfT claim that we can’t lengthen existing trains because of the length of the platforms. Utter tosh.

    Back in the day when the Stanier “Duchess” Pacifics ruled the West Coast Main Line, the big express trains were 12, 13, 14 coaches or more in length and were accommodated easily. The platforms are the same size, so why aren’t the trains? The problem is that the majority of trains are fixed rakes or multiple units, making it extremely difficult to lengthen them. To me that is an argument to go back to the days of locomotive haulage, but that’s a subject for another blog.

    Re your comment about having trains longer than the stations, that can be done now with corridor connections between carriages. The trick will be designing the interiors of trains in such a way that people can walk easily along the train to get to a useable door. Alternatively, of course, we could just lengthen the platforms for a fraction of the cost of HS2.

    • That’s because the coaches were 15m long not 23m like they are today. Come on, do your research before you make these claims.

      And lengthening platforms isn’t as easy as it sounds when doing so would mean building over complex pointwork in station throats and the like. It’s not like people haven’t thought about these things you know.

  3. Exactly.. and HS2 is supposedly all about attracting more people to go on the train.
    So if it’s as good as they say then all the extra capacity will be used up anyway!
    I heard the cost of rebuilding the bridges for double decker trains would be the same as HS2, but then they could simply have trains longer than the platforms but arrange it so that people are seated to be able to get off at their destination.
    Cost would be about nothing but a few screens on carriage doors which display which stations they can get off at.

    But maybe just improve the cross country services so not everyone has to go via London and it’ll probably free up a lot of capacity anyway!

  4. @Norm – You mention capacity, and this is an interesting point.

    Our current network is running very close to capacity at the moment, however the Government’s solution is to add some more capacity in twenty years’ time. Surely if capacity is a problem then we should be investing in improving it now, not waiting two decades to get some more capacity for a small % of the population.

  5. An useful description of the obvious flaws of this scheme,thank you. On the point about HS2 Ltd’s business case resting on the idea that people don’t work on trains I note that Network Rail believes the opposite, to the extent that it sees a market of such size that it is investing in workspaces at major stations. http://www.networkrail.co.uk/drop-in-work-space.aspx

  6. I do think it would be better spent on small regional airports … at some point we are going to able to have electric planes powered by clean energy so environment won’t be the question.
    People could then hop on/off these like a bus and go anywhere, not just the few places a train can go – and probably still quicker than a train even if they have to change batteries at Crewe! (or how about battery swapping stations on airships!)

    One thing they say about the current lines is capacity.
    But that many billions could go into technology to assist with this…. technology we could sell to other countries!
    I expore a few ideas on my blog
    Yeah, they may or may not be silly but the point is that we’re not being inventive or daring in the slightest and so the opposite of what the Victorians did.
    It’s the equivalent of them putting go-faster stripes on a horse then charging double.

  7. I’ve just had a closer look at that DfT map that was put on my HS2 article. The journey times they are quoting are absolute rubbish.

    According to the DfT, the journey time from Birmingham to Glasgow will be reduced from 3hr 57 today to 3hr 15 by HS2. I cannot see how this can be the case. Birmingham to Glasgow today is direct. To use HS2 to get to Glasgow from Birmingham would require a change at Manchester onto another train to get you to Glasgow, however the only trains that go from Manchester to Glasgow directly are First Transpennine Express. That journey takes 3hr 15min. Add the 40 minutes for HS2, plus 10 minutes to change, and you’re looking at a journey time of over 4 hours from Birmingham to Glasgow using HS2. Alternatively you could change onto a train to Preston and then change onto a train to Glasgow, but again that’s 3hr 15min, on top of the time on HS2. Again, you have a total journey time that is longer than the current, direct service. The same is true for their proposed journey times to Edinburgh. In both cases the fast direct trains they today are faster than HS2 will be. I don’t know what the DfT have based their proposed journey times on, but they are complete rubbish.

    Liverpool to Birmingham, again, doesn’t add up. They say that it journey times will be reduced from 1hr 43 to just 1 hour, but again they are ignoring the fact that today you can get a direct train from Liverpool to Birmingham, whereas to use HS2 you would have to connect in Manchester. Liverpool to Manchester takes 50 minutes. Add in 40 minutes for HS2 plus ten minutes to change trains and you have completely eliminated any savings from HS2. The overall journey time would be the same and you would be paying a premium price for the added inconvenience of changing trains.

    I’ve checked and double checked all of this. Unless there is a magical plan to rapidly accelerate the connecting trains (which we are told isn’t possible, hence the need for HS2) then the numbers simply don’t add up.

    • @Bob Foster – You have completely over looked the fact there will be “Classic compatible” trains which will use the High Speed network from London to Birmingham and then joining the current and ever-so brilliant West Coast line. Once HS2 reaches Manchester, these trains will reach Crewe before continuing on the West Coast line once again. So you’re nonsense about having to change trains and connecting times simply doesn’t stack up as the reality is, it benefits a large portion of the population.

      Yes London to Birmingham is only a bit of the population (a sizeable bit never the less) but the majority of the UK, Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Glasgow etc! will be using this fast corridor.

      That is not a DfT map on this article btw as it is incorrect. The map shows the Liverpool trains reaching Manchester first and then making the final bit of the journey in a ludicruous 16 minutes! It will infact leave the High Speed railway much before Manchester at Crewe. The map also shows HS2 going through Derby for instance when it’s well established, even in this article that the railway runs between Nottingham & Derby.

      Upgrading the current West Coast line to boost capacity is said to cost £30bn by Network Rail and will cause enormous disruption to commuters for years and have no where near as many benefits as High Speed 2, I know which I’d prefer!

      • “Classic Compatible” trains on HS2? Really? So rather than changing at Manchester you change at Crewe? The fact remains that you are still changing trains on a journey that is currently direct and paying a premium price for doing so, and less than half the journey will be on the high speed route. I don’t see how that differs from my argument.

        You make a sarcastic remarks about the “ever so brilliant” West Coast Main Line. I’m not entirely sure why, as at no point have I sung the praises of the current West Coast Main Line. I have pointed out, correctly, the current journey times and also, correctly, that journeys that are direct today will require changes on HS2. The current WCML is adequate, but that’s it. The trains that Virgin use are overcrowded and uncomfortable. The line is also very quickly approaching capacity. I don’t see how building a new line in twenty years is going to address the capacity problems we have today (the same argument goes for airports).

        As for the costs of upgrading the WCML, if Network Rail had done the previous upgrade properly rather than on the cheap then we could have had trains running in excess of 140mph today. Virgin’s Pendolinos were designed to run at 140mph+ based on the fact that the line was going to be upgraded to allow it. Then the Government decided to do the upgrade on the cheap, keeping the line speed at 125mph. Had they spent a little more money then, it would not cost £30bn and untold disruption to upgrade it again in the future.

        Again on capacity, the only way HS2 can improve capacity on the WCML without spending more money to upgrade the WCML would be if conventional services were cut and moved onto HS2. I don’t see how reducing services in order to force people to pay more and use HS2 is going to be in the interests of customer choice.

        Finally, your point about the line benefiting the whole of the country is simply false. When you add in the time and cost of travelling to one of the ends of HS2 and then the premium cost of using it (and there will be a premium cost for it) the benefits are completely removed. In the example I gave of my family in Warwickshire they have to travel for 45 minutes in the wrong direction in order to use HS2 to get to London.

        • No they are direct trains with no changes that is what I’m trying to say. The documents explain how there are going to be two different types of train for High Speed 2. Very large TGV style trains which cannot leave the High Speed lines due to their size and “Classic Compatible” trains which use both the High Speed 2 network and the existing railway network, these are much smaller. These classic compatible trains will operate on High Speed 2 from Euston and leave the line from Crewe to join the West Coast mainline where the trains will continue to Liverpool, Preston, Glasgow for instance. On the other spur of the network they will leave HS2 around Leeds and continue to Newcastle and Edinburgh for instance. That’s how I reached the conclusion it benefits much of England & Scotland as they will receive quicker journey times.

          The argument for High Speed 2 though should not be quicker journey times, these are a mere bonus. I completely agree that the WCML upgrade was done badly but that is in the past and has happened. It would be incredibly expensive and disruptive to rectify this unfortunately and High Speed 2 costs a similar amount and has many more advantages (benefiting people in the North-East for instance). It is all about capacity, the West Coast and East Coast lines are close to capacity like you say, although not yet at capacity, that’s why this is being planned now. This will take express trains off those lines and allow for more freight and commuter trains, benefiting rural places like Warwickshire who are likely to see increased frequency at their stations as a result. There is simply not a viable alternative to High Speed 2 in regards to capacity. Efforts are being made to increase the West Coast line in the meantime, just recently half the Pendolino fleet of Virgin Trains was increased from 9 coaches to 11 coaches, this included the increase of platform lengths where possible but this is very difficult and expensive in city centres of course.
          The cost of High Speed 2 is also minimal given how it’s taking over the £2 Billion a year Crossrail receives after 2018, it’s spread out over a long period of time.
          I do completely agree with you though regarding its poor linking of airports though, the UKs airport strategy needs to be sorted as soon as possible as that too is reaching capacity and whether it’s Heathrow or Thames Estuary airport, they should rapidly be added to the High Speed 2 network.

Leave a Reply to Bob Foster Cancel reply

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here