I apologise for my lack of enthusiasm for HS2. It’s been unavoidably delayed owing to the lack of evidence

HS2‘All aboard!’ exhorts the email I received last night from Lib Dem transport minister Norman Baker, hailing his announcement of the Coalition’s plans for Phase Two of Britain’s High Speed Rail Network (aka HS2). I’m afraid, though, I’m going to have to apologise to Norman for the delay in arrival of my goodwill owing to what I suspect is the wrong type of investment on the lines.

HS2, we are told, will cut journey times, help the environment, heal the North-South divide and boost growth. Each of these arguments is less secure than the government has made it sound.

A train from Birmingham to London will, post-HS2, take 49 minutes rather than 1hr 12 mins. Reaching Liverpool from the capital will be 15 minutes quicker than the current 2hrs 1min. A train from London-Edinburgh will be 21 minutes quicker than the current 4 hour fast train. I’m sure these modest benefits will be appreciated by those using the trains. But I question if they’re worth £32bn investment.

As for the environmental case, here’s transport commentator Christian Wolmar’s take:

… the environmental case has all but collapsed since the effect of the line would be pretty much carbon neutral according to the study by HS2 Ltd, the government body charged with taking forward the scheme, if the impact of its construction were taken into account. The environmental case was fatally weakened by the realisation that few high-speed train passengers would transfer from air. Again, HS2 Ltd found that most users would otherwise have taken conventional train services or simply not made the trip.

Is there any real evidence HS2 will lessens the North-South’s economic inequalities? Very little. International experience suggests that when a thriving capital city is connected by high-speed rail to surrounding cities in the hope of reducing regional inequalities, it is the capital city which receives the greatest benefit:

Prof John Tomaney from the School of Planning at University College London (UCL) said that, given the evidence in countries where high-speed lines have been introduced, such as France, Spain and South Korea, there was very little evidence of reducing regional inequalities.

“On the contrary, in fact the evidence seems to suggest that it’s the capital cities which gain principally from these developments,” he told the BBC. “A very good example would be the Madrid to Seville line in Spain. That line was built in order to promote the growth of Seville. But in actual fact, following its completion, Madrid grew at a much faster rate than Seville. In fact the gap between their economic performances widened. The relationship between Seoul and Busan [in South Korea] is very similar.”

Will it boost the economy? Of course: it would be hard to spend £32bn without doing so. The Government claims that for every £1 spent there will be £2 in economic benefit. They are alone in such optimism. But even if it were right, why focus such a huge amount of taxpayers’ money on this one north-south route? If you’re going to commit to this huge infrastructure splurge, why not instead invest further in the continuing electrification of railways across the country to ensure far more of the population benefits and reduce diesel consumption?

HS2 is shiny and new, and Governments and their ministers love their grand plans. But this is a whole lot of buck for not very much bang.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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45 Comments

  • Stephen, I feel you’ve failed to make a very balanced argument here. You point out that there aren’t very great improvements for Birmingham, Liverpool and Edinburgh but in doing so you compare HS2 to the current fastest trains, not the average trains. More importantly though you fail to mention the major benefits for Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield all of which will not only see an hour knocked off their journey times to London but also will be dragged into commutable distance with the capital. Not only is this good for businesses “up North” but it is also good for those who live in Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield and even those who run businesses in London.

    In addition to pure employment, it should help to bring down house prices in some of the most expensive areas of the country, this can only be good. It will almost certainly bring economic benefits; even if you only believe it will bring an extra 0.01% boost to GDP then it will pay for itself over around 30 years.

  • The line is there to release capacity. Repeat this 1000 times.

  • I agree with Stephen Tall

    @Thomas Long
    That’s very twisted economics. Why do you think that people commuting to London is good for house prices? It might be good for house prices (coming down) in the South-East (if people really did start commuting from the great conurbations of Toton and Meadowhell) but it would have an adverse effect on house prices in those commuter areas. Net gain = 0. Except it’s worse than that because of all the time people waste on the trains and the cost to the environment. In reality, it would be better for both the economy, the environment and society (house prices) if businesses relocated from the South East. Building bigger, faster railway lines to move people to the South East to work every day is nuts.

    Railways were so successful in the 19th century because they improved trade. Producers could get perishable goods to new markets before they perished and could transport in bulk with less risk of damage and with greater efficiency. None of this is true about knocking a few minutes of the journey time to London to see a show.

    HS2 is a huge white elephant as the plans simply don’t take into account the geography of the small area it covers. High speed lines to out-of-town stations make sense in countries like France where a journey time from Paris to Avignon is cut by several hours. However, for example, if I were to use the new line it would be a choice of driving 40 minutes to Toton to for the 68 minute journey to London, or driving 10 minutes to Leicester for the existing 68 minute journey to London. The whole thing is an environmental calamity and for what? Moving people around slightly quicker, if they happen to live near one of the remote stations. Which market does it improve? – none, other than senselessly moving people in and out of London to work. It will be the ultimate triumph of neo-liberalism, making the workforce completely flexible to the demands of completely inflexible business.

  • @cogload
    “The line is there to release capacity. Repeat this 1000 times.”

    We don’t need that capacity. We need to move jobs to where people live and allow people to move closer to their jobs by reducing house prices.

    Look at this plot:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GBR_rail_passenegers_by_year.gif

    Rail passenger numbers have increased massively since 2001,as a result of the the insane growth in house prices. People are finding it easier to spend a huge amount of time and money commuting than spending an even greater amount living next to where they work. This is bad news the productivity of our economy. There are two obvious solutions to this problem, neither of which involves making it easier for people to travel unnecessarily every day.

  • What cogload said.

    We’ve spent £9 billion upgrading the West Coast Main Line and still trains out of Euston heading to Birmingham and Manchester are packed. It is new capacity that will release the pressure on the network: while the speed is welcome (and it’ll effectively be the premium option for these journeys) if we do nothing we will end up at capacity and with no way of releasing or mitigating it. We shouldn’t be afraid to take the long-term view, and it’s that upward pressure on capacity is the real driver here.

  • Again. The live is there to create capacity. Repeat 1000 times.

  • “The live is there to create capacity. Repeat 1000 times.”

    Repeating something a thousand times doesn’t make you right, Yes, the line is aimed at increasing capacity, but have you actually asked yourself if why the demand for rail travel has increased so dramatically and whether it is sustainable economically and environmentally? Another solution to the capacity problem is to actively reduce demand. Another solution is to allow the market to adjust to the current capacity level, which will force businesses to move from London. Building more railway lines to London will only increase the wealth of the South East at the expense of everywhere else

  • Billy Boulton 29th Jan '13 - 11:13am

    I don’t think anyone really disputes that a benefit of the new line will be to release capacity on the other lines as well as provide faster journeys for those lucky few who really are going from near a station to near another station.

    I think the issue in question is whether spending such a large some of money on this one project is the most effective way to do that. I am not an expert on the lines set to benefit from extra capacity. But I strongly suspect that, as with East Anglia where I’m from, a whole host of things like modernised signalling, passing loops, flyovers or other capacity improvements at junctions, remodelled station could provide more improvement for the money, benefitting more people at less impact to the environment and realising the benefits far sooner. (Thinking of East Suffolk line andCambridge if anyone is interested in looking into these)

  • What Billy Boulton said. And, if capacity-adding, is the purpose of the lines, why the focus on the moniker “High Speed”?

  • Personally, I’d build the HS2 rail system FROM the North south TO London not the other way around. Once MPs discovered they’d have to wait for the rail system a bit longer, I’d suspect their support would wane quickly.

    As it is, given the way the system is being announced it seems to be just a case of helping people from London get “up north” quicker.

  • This is a dissapointingly poor article from someone whos peices are usually much better argued.
    Firstly there is alot of argument against the secondary benefits, reduced journey time while making no mention of the primary benefit, increased capacity.
    Second there is the bizarre acceptance of Christian Wolmar as a neutral “expert”. He is in fact very political, a lifelong Anarchist & active in the Squatting movement in the 1970s & 80s. Thats not to question his long-term interest in Transport but he comes from a political angle, one unlikely to be sympathetic to the Coalition.

  • There’s a capacity crunch heading our way on the WCML and others. We either do nothing and allow things to get worse, add ever more complex and disruptive upgrades to the existing network, or construct a new line that’s built for purpose. The government has wisely chosen the latter option.

    If there’s a good business case for improvement to other railways, we should be doing them too. Capital investment is either worth doing or it’s not and there shouldn’t be a fixed pot of money for such projects.

    Steve’s comment is also excellent. We need to tackle demand-side too.

  • Richard Dean 29th Jan '13 - 12:23pm

    Could there be other ways to handle the capacity crunch? Such as encouraging businesses to re-locate away from London, or such as building the new air hub in the North?

  • Richard Shaw 29th Jan '13 - 1:12pm

    Let us not forget the Northern Hub rail project which, when coupled with HS2, will greatly improve rail services and infrastructure in the North West and Yorkshire. HS2 is also more than just the high-speed line itself. For example, Sheffield will gain a new tram-train which will run along the existing mainline from Dore in the south of the city to connect with HS2 at Meadowhall, with new stations being built along the route to serve suburbs whose original railway stations have been long closed and demolished. The Midland Mainline is also to be electrified.

    It’s not an either/or when it comes to building HS2 and investing in existing lines. Both new and revitalised existing lines are required.

  • Richard Shaw 29th Jan '13 - 1:34pm

    @Stephen Tall

    To coin a phrase, one does not simply add extra carriages to a train. Train lengths are constrained by the infrastructure e.g. station lengths, signalling blocks, the gap between points and crossovers and so on. It’s also limited by the amount of power available in the fixed-length multiple units, which would have to be expensively retrofitted to cope with the extra loads.

  • I remember when the M25 was completed – we were all told it was to ensure traffic was diverted around London – all thats happened is people are commuting from one area to another while another load go the other way. I remember when Concorde was heralded – we were told how wonderful it would be to get to New York in two hours – it never happened and I don’t see much evidence that it has made much difference.

    Do we really want to create suburbs of London in Sheffield that are completely and utterly dislocated from people’s place of work? Whatever happened to localism?

  • Charles Beaumont 29th Jan '13 - 2:49pm

    I think the problem here is that some are arguing against HS2 and others are arguing that investment in the railways is a good idea, but that HS2 is the wrong investment. But one argument does’t necessarily contradict the other. If you are going to build a new North-South line in response to overcrowding it makes sense to do so with up to date technology. But that isn’t a reason not also to invest in updating the crumbling infrastructure on the rest of the network. Of course, money doesn’t come out of thin air, but given that the govt can borrow more cheaply than at any time in recent years and that we are struggling to get out of a depression, now might be a good time to do some investing.

  • The big problem with HS2, though, is that it isn’t a “high-speed link to the North” – that’s only the perspective if you’re in London. So far, the plans do nothing for Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Newcastle, not to mention Sunderland, Middlesborough, Carlisle, Dundee and Aberdeen. It’s just another southern railway line.

    The other problem is that – when we’re already 20 – 30 years behind most of Europe on high speed rail – we’ve got to wait another 20 years for even this bit to be completed. By which stage, we’ll be almost half a century behind. I support high speed rail – but I’m really struggling to find postives in this.

  • Old Codger Chris 29th Jan '13 - 5:43pm

    Steve – “Another solution is to allow the market to adjust to the current capacity level, which will force businesses to move from London”.

    I don’t understand that argument. It might force businesses to move TO London for connections to the rest of the UK and the world. It might even encourage businesses to move abroad.

  • Liberal Eye 29th Jan '13 - 6:56pm

    I agree with Stephen that we should be very cautious about this. Simon Jenkins has described this, accurately as far as I can tell, as being the death of evidence-based policy. The shifting grounds for going ahead – reduced journey times, capacity increases, job creation – are classic warning signs of a plan that cannot stand scrutiny (and scrutinising capital spending plans is a job I used to do for a very large comapny).

    I know there are lots of people who are simply itching to get infrastructure spending going to boost jobs and the economy but doing the wrong project will make those goals more remote, not nearer.

  • Tony Greaves 29th Jan '13 - 7:20pm

    The day that Liberals start to rely on Simon Jenkins for balanced comment is the day when we might as well give up!

    HS2 is a great Liberal Democrat victory within the coalition yet all the miserable useless LDV can do is to parrot the miserable useless argument of the Nimbys of the Chilterns and the right-wing free-market brigade who dobn’t belive in public investment. Thinking of which I wonder where Stephen Tall lives?

    Tony Greaves

  • @Stephen, normally I believe you to be one of the most logical Lib Dems out there, but here you have presented an argument based on what I can only presume is your own dislike of the HS2.

    Now most have concerned on your speed points and other such things, but here is the argument I take most issue with:

    “On the contrary, in fact the evidence seems to suggest that it’s the capital cities which gain principally from these developments,” he told the BBC. “A very good example would be the Madrid to Seville line in Spain. That line was built in order to promote the growth of Seville. But in actual fact, following its completion, Madrid grew at a much faster rate than Seville. In fact the gap between their economic performances widened. The relationship between Seoul and Busan [in South Korea] is very similar.”

    In Spain, Seville did receive a massive boost from the introduction of a HSR and to try and demean that by saying, well, Madrid received a bigger one seems illogical because what you are fundamentally saying is that two cities both receiving massive boosts is a bad thing? Also, the effects this had on housing in Madrid should not be ignored; one of the biggest issues facing our capital is its insane rents and this will be a key way to tackle that problem as businesses and people can move out of London more freely. This is exactly what happened with Madrid and Ciudad Real.

    Next, using Spain’s HSR as an example seems very selective to me as the rail is one of the most contentious. Furthermore, the problems with the Spain HSR are due to poor planning meaning that regions such as Getafe, Aranjuez and Algodor lost out. However, poor planning is not the fault of the HSR itself, that the planners fault. Hopefully, this project seems not to be making that mistake as it is linking many of the northern cities to London.

    In addition, this quote completely ignores countries like Taiwan and Japan where their whole economies have been boosted by these projects. Moreover, in Japan, air travel has decreased extensively due to the success of the project.

    Finally, Korean’s economic loses on the project came down to its failure to expand into the south. The wider-reaching effects of it being so badly delayed and insanely expensive should also not be ignored.

  • @Cogload is still right. It’s all about capacity.

    But what’s interesting is how this debate is being phrased nationally – it’s all about the new journey times to/from London.

    A little test for you – find me a national media source that comprehensively lists the times to/from Birmingham, Toton, Meadowhall and Leeds. I’d love to be proved wrong, but I’m 99% certain that there isn’t one because I spent a long time today searching for such a site.

    Anyway, there are going to be massive improvements on this stretch. Derby/Nottingham to Birmingham is currently an hour by rail or car – with HS2, it will be 19 minutes. In the Midlands/North, not only is HS2 going to provide extra capacity on rails but it will free up capacity on the motorway system. Who is seriously going to argue that’s a bad thing?

  • There’s a lot of discussion here about the impact on passengers, commuting and so on but not on the benefits for rail freight. I gather the capacity argument also applies to freight. Not that freight trains can use HS2 as they travel too slowly but that the freed up capacity on the existing lines means improvements can be made in freight services which would presumably take lorries off the road – surely a good thing.

  • What every one seems to be forgetting is that the country is massively in debt, such that the interest replayments are “eye wateringly large”. Hence much of the reason for belt tightening, cutting benefits to the most vulnerable – remember the savings due to teh changes in child benefit are around £2b pa . Yet everyone seems to be falling over themselves to squander the monies saved and spend circa £2b pa on something that will have little real economic impact until 2040 or later (yes the line might be running before then but they will be a lag while people ajust to it being there) and hence will largely be used by those currently under twenty. Just something to bear in mind when knocking on doors in all those marginals…

  • Liberal Eye 30th Jan '13 - 5:58pm

    Tony Greaves

    With around £33 bn of public funds at stake and many other projects likely to be starved of capital if it goes ahead, HS2 is, par excellence, a case where evidence-based policy is vital. Yet all I am hearing from the political parties (including some contributors to this comment thread) are flowery, emotive – and ultimately empty – phrases like “healing the north south divide”, “investing for the future” and so on. No actual evidence is provided. On the other side of the debate people like SImon Jenkins are making substantive points which go unanswered or are dismissed as nimbyism. You may not like him – fair enough; but that is no reason to play the man, not the ball. That way lie the wastelands of groupthink.

    Chris Stokes, another person with railway experience points out (in the link provided by Stephen in his comment at 11:47 on 29 Jan above) that journey times to many towns not fortunate enough to be near an HS2 station will actually increase. Also the DfT has refused Freedom of Information requests to disclose loading data for the West Coast Main Line claiming “commercial confidentiality”. What nonsense! However, we do know from First Group’s recent abortive bid for the franchise that, once the current train-lengthening project is finished, that average loading will only be 35%. Astonishing!

    In my experience when people are pretending that key data doesn’t exist or somehow isn’t available and there is evidence of big fat porkies all round, then the project is a stinker. For the avoidance of doubt let me state clearly that I am a big fan of public investment but it should be the right projects. Investing badly will only reduce the size of the national pie and, when the next iteration comes around, will play straight into the hands of those who oppose it -“look at the mess the government made last time” is all they have to say to make their case.

  • >However, we do know from First Group’s recent abortive bid for the franchise that, once the current train-lengthening project is finished, that average loading will only be 35%. Astonishing!

    We can also deduce from Virgin’s bid, which would have been predicated on HS2 going ahead, combined with the plans for HS2, that we will see significant capacity reductions on the WCML within ten years, mainly due to the daft decision to use existing platforms at Euston. The lesson from St. Pancres is that it doesn’t really matter how much the line is upgraded there are now insuff icient platforms allocated to the Midland line a problem that would of been avoided if the original HS1 station plans had been implemented (these also would of put the north London international interconnect underground and you can’t say that that would cost too much as that is exactly what we are doing with Crossrail.

    Every time I drive through the Twyford Void I’m reminded of the stupidity of politicians: who to save a relatively small amount of money decided to destroy a community asset for ALL future generations.

  • I support public investment in infrastructure, such as development of the railways, but the key question is whether this particular project is the right one.
    The continental model fits places like France and Spain where there are large distances between the big towns and cities, but north of Birmingham that does not apply here. I want improved rail services that serve all the major towns, including Stoke-on-Trent, Chesterfield, etc and the outer suburbs of the big cities; this requires a different approach, involving more track, bypasses, flyovers at junctions etc. What about improved travel between South Wales and the Midlands ? The M5/M50 was built for that, but now is the time to switch to rail instead. The second Severn crossing was probably a mistake, because soon after the first was built there should have been an improved rail service or crossing. We should also realise that if we are to take passengers away from air traffic then people should not have to travel significant distances to get to the few stations that HS2 will serve.
    A friend of mine has looked at evidence from the continent confirming what Stephen says, that the economic benefits will be more for London than for northern areas and as has already been said, where is the idea of localism and sustainability ? That means more and better local travel.
    Furthermore, the effects on the big cities may well enhance their economies somewhat, but there will also be overcrowding, due to more people having to travel via these cities and more people trying to live nearer the few stations that HS2 will serve.
    CLlr. Nigel Jones

  • Steve Coltman 1st Feb '13 - 10:43am

    One has to despair at the British way of making policy. The government has already published details of the route and these debates should have been conducted years ago. You should start with debating generalities then systematically home in on specifics, not the other way round. I think Roland has made a good point about investment. If we were like Norway or Saudi Arabia, with more money than we knew what to do with, then sinking it into a long-term investment might make sense. But we are seriously strapped for cash and should not be putting £30bn+ into something that won’t return its first penny for a decade and a half and won’t break even for a generation (if it ever does). The only real guaranteed winners are the construction industry. They will walk away with a nice fat profit, leaving the nation even more in debt and with an asset which may or may not be worth the money spent on it.
    From an East Midlands perspective, I suspect we might be better off if HS2 by-passed us completely, we are too close to London to gain any benefit worth the cost. It would certainly undermine the economics of the existing Midland Main Line (which is soon to be upgraded). Given the inconvenience of getting to Toton, we could end up with longer and more expensive door-to-door times.

  • Not one comment on the environment and people it will affect, the lack of compensation! Says it all. Spend billions on a railway, why bother giving out full compensation to those “upset”…..I tell you all those who are upset are devastated that their lives are in ruin with stress for their financial loss! Remember, you don’t have a country without people…..it is then just called land!

  • David Evershed 24th Oct '13 - 7:29pm

    Why do politians always choose the single high visibilty, low value, prestige projects rather than the multiple low visibility, high value (in aggregate), modest projects ?

  • Peter Davies 24th Oct '13 - 10:44pm

    They don’t. They are just more visible when they do.

  • Peter Davies 24th Oct '13 - 11:04pm

    @Keith Legg
    “The big problem with HS2, though, is that it isn’t a “high-speed link to the North” – that’s only the perspective if you’re in London. So far, the plans do nothing for Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Newcastle, not to mention Sunderland, Middlesborough, Carlisle, Dundee and Aberdeen.”
    It will shorten the journey times from all those places to Birmingham and London and all those smaller destinations in the Midlands and Chilterns that get extra trains as a result. It should also reduce freight costs to these places.

  • Jonathan Butson 8th Oct '14 - 6:52pm

    I am someone working in the rail industry, but not someone who’s business will benefit from HS2.
    Firstly the capacity IS NEEDED on the west coast main line, it is the world’s busiest conventional railway line for passengers and freight, and it gets busier year on year. It is maxing out now.
    the environmental case for HS2 has been understated because people don’t consider the reduced lorry movements that the extra capacity for freight trains will cause.
    The economic benefits for the North are proven, as long as Northern councils and development bodies plan and take advantage of the benefits of HS2. Foreign high speed lines have benefitted places such as Lille. The local Lille government has done the right things to benefit from their high speed line.
    whether you like it or not London is the economic heart of Britain, you can’t just restrict the number of people using main lines to get to work in London, that policy will make the whole of the UK poorer.
    Building HS2 will not reduce the improvements to conventional lines.
    Over the last 5 years the annual spend rate on Thameslink and Crossrail has been the same as the annual spend rate needed for HS2, at the same time the last 5 years have seen about 3 billion spent each year on improving railways and bringing them up to a modern standard. This will carry on, already the next 5 years funding for network rail and a raft of improvements is already funded.
    It’s great having your comments page, but half the comments are not based on facts, Please get your facts right!

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