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.
On 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 the 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.
The 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