Tuesday 3 June 2014

The case against HS2

Christian Wolmar is hoping to be Labour's candidate for the next election of Mayor of London.  This may excuse the large amount of London detail which gives his article in the London Review of Books, "What's the point of HS2?" a  somewhat discursive nature.    However, extracted from his attempt to show his familiarity with the London scene, the meat of his arguments against HS2 are powerful and I summarise them as follows:

1.  The original argument for HS2 was environmental: that it would cut down on carbon emissions. However, given that 57% of travellers would be transferring from the conventional rail, which because slower uses less fuel and so is less environmentally damaging, and only 16% would transfer from car or plane, then the high-speed line is "as likely to increase carbon consumption as reduce it."

2.  HS2 connects with only a limited number of cities, but will take passengers from the trains that now also connect with other centres.  Services to these other centres may therefore be reduced or not maintained at all, thus  reducing "interconnectivity."

3. The fastest Virgin service from London to Birmingham  takes 82 minutes: HS2 will reduce this to 49 minutes.  Even at the 2011 estimate of £17b this is a very expensive way of cutting 33 minutes off the travel time.  (This argument was quickly ridiculed and dropped) .

4.  The next argument in favour was based on capacity.  Trains on the West Coast mainline are apparently very overcrowded.  However, this is the result of Virgin's pricing policy, with massive differences between peak time and advance purchase off peak tickets (£113 to £19 for Euston to Manchester).  Long distance peak time trains  leaving Euston  are on average only 52% full.

5.  The economic case for HS2 is based on  a gross overestimation of the likely growth in demand, using  the extrapolation of present rates of increase  for the next 20 years.  There is a track record  (pun is mine, not Wolmar's) for this among railway buffs: HS1 was predicted to carry 25 million international  passengers  by 2006 - it did not reach even 10 million until 2013.

6.  The cost-benefit analysis used rates the value of  time lost whilst travelling at £36.96 per hour for railway passengers (compared with £44.69 for someone in a taxi and only £17 for someone on a bike!  Cameron beware.)  Whatever the rate, this ignores the fact that, with modern electronics, businessmen can and do work on trains.  In fact, shortening the journey time may actually reduce businessmen's productivity.

7.  The Department of Transport demands that the scheme should reach at least a minimum benefit:cost ratio of 2:1.  At the present estimate it is 2.7:1, but only 1.7:1 for the first London-Birmingham stretch.  By contrast the Department of the Environment requires a benefits:cost ratio of 8:1 for flood defences.

8. HS2 was originally meant to connect with Heathrow airport.  This has now been abandoned, but the route is still determined by this earlier  aspiration.

9.  HS2 was also originally meant to connect to HS1.  This too has now been abandoned and travellers from the Continent will have to trundle their luggage for half a mile along the Euston Road, to get from St Pancras to Euston Station.

10.  The final argument is that HS2 will reduce the North-South  Divide. But what centres outside London need is "interconnectivity"  between themselves. Since HS2 connects with only Birmingham,and eventually with Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield, and often with "parkway "stations requiring road journeys to city centres, this is no great improvement.  Indeed, interconnectivity could even be reduced. (See point 2)

 I apologise to Mr Wolmar if I have distorted or misrepresented any of his arguments, and urge those interested to look at the original article (link above)

I claim no railway or transport expertise, but my own view (not  based solely on my experiences of the overcrowded Trans-Pennine line) is that if it does anything at all, HS2 is more likely to suck energy and enterprise out of the Northern Cities and turn to whole country into a suburb of London.

Wolmar mentions as an alternative the work of "two experienced engineers, Quentin Macdonald and Colin Elliff."  I have met Mr Macdonald, a fellow Liberal Democrat, heard him present their  ideas and  find them very convincing. Their scheme, High Speed UK (HSUK), achieves 11 times the connectivity of HS2 because their new build railway acts as a new high speed spine to the existing network, interconnecting with it no less than 55 times.  The result is that for intercity journeys within the geographic scope of HSUK, journey times are reduced by an average of 40%.  Because they need less new build railway and less tunnelling HSUK is 25% cheaper than HS2 and avoids the Chilterns AONB.  Their proposals are clearly set out on their website:  http://www.highspeeduk.co.uk/


  1. Here's another full-scheme alternative to HS2, which would be started North-first. I drafted in response to HS2's obvious flaws: http://hsnorthstart.wordpress.com/

    And see Christian Wolmar's view in June 1992 that the rail industry needed to come up with a better scheme than HS2, a Plan B: http://www.christianwolmar.co.uk/2012/06/hs2-speculation-suggest-need-for-plan-b/

    Finally there's the BBC's 'Mind The Gap' two-parter on BBCi, with Evan Davies reporting, arguing that a northern 'agglomeration' of city centres was essential for competing with London's world-city attractions to the south: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03y3y8k

  2. Thanks for those links Michael Wand. I haven't yet had time to listen to the Evan Davies programmes but your other links add considerably to what I feel is an essential debate before more millions go down the drain.

    Your own proposals certainly seem to win hands down on connectivity and would do much more than HS2 for the Northern economy.

    I think the Wolmar post is 2012 rathert than 1992