Julian Huppert MP writes: High Speed Rail no longer the transport of the future, but a logistical imperative

Birmingham in 49 minutes, Leeds in 80, and 45 minutes shaved off the journey to Scotland’s major cities. For some, this is reason enough for the Government’s new High Speed Rail line (HS2) – stretching from London in the South, to Manchester in the North-West and Leeds in the North-East.

Many, including myself, would love to see the line extended all the way up to Scotland, providing a real boost to domestic tourism and sustainable growth.

But in amongst the disputes over cost benefit analyses and NIMBYism, there are some startling figures which remind us why High Speed Rail is vital for the future of British transport; and why it is that we included it in our 2008 policy paper Fast Track Britain, our 2010 Election Manifesto and now the Coalition Agreement.

Over the last 50 years the length of our rail network has roughly halved, but, since 1980, the number of passenger journeys has doubled. This reduction in capacity, at a time when demand has soared, has fuelled over-crowding and led to eye-watering price hikes.

Network Rail estimates that by 2024 the existing line to Birmingham and the North West will be full – already we are seeing serious congestion on commuter services at the Southern end of the line, seriously harming service reliability and passenger welfare.

These fundamental facts have been largely ignored by politicians and the press alike; the debate over the HS2 project has been damagingly distorted. The need for the extra capacity which this project will provide is not a luxury, it is a cold, hard necessity which we cannot afford to ignore.

There have been some ludicrous suggestions that this capacity problem could be fixed by extra carriages and the reduction of first class seats. It sounds like a simple solution, but running that many services on a single would result in a completely unreliable service. Massive infrastructure works on a deeply overcrowded line is not a solution, it’s not even a quick fix, it is a completely unrealistic alternative.

The only possible alternative would be to just build a non-high speed line along a similar route. But current estimates place the cost saving at just 9% and, crucially, the line would not stop the extraordinarily damaging growth in road and air travel.

Current projections suggest that the HS2 project will transfer 6 million air trips and 9 million road trips onto rail. If you’re going to build a new train line, you have to make it fit for 21st century travel.

There are some who say that we are so far behind our competitors in Europe and Japan that we should construct the whole line all in one go. But this would delay the commencement of building due to the size of the consultation and the complexity of the Parliamentary process, and it would lead to disproportionate financial and logistical difficulties. Just think back to previous Government IT projects.

For years Liberal Democrats have derided Government plans to patch up the old train lines and ignore technological advances abroad. But now, with massive pressure on freight and commuter services, disproportionate economic growth in London and the South-East and a pressing need to reduce our carbon emissions, High Speed rail is no longer the transport of the future, it is a logistical imperative.

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31 Comments

  • Alternatively, you could implement fiscal measures that will reduce the price of housing by a half. This would reduce the demand for rail journeys as people would then be able to live closer to where they work. The credit-fuelled housing bubble of the last decade caused the increase in commuter journey times. Decreasing journey times would make the problem worse.

    At a time when our economy faces major problems, we should be asking ourselves why there has been such an increase in commuting and think about what we can do to alleviate the problem – i.e. ensuring that people can live next to where they work, encouraging working from home, etc. Our current system is madness and hopelessly inefficient – the number of hours spent commuting is economically wasteful and we simply cannot afford it. Subsidising more commuting is not the answer,

  • Liberal Neil 18th Oct '11 - 2:26pm

    Plus – if there are currently significantly more journeys on the London-Birmingham stretch then that maximises the number of passengers who benefit from the initial investment.

  • Nowhere in this article do you mention the cost of HS2. £32 billion (that is £32 thousand million pounds) of taxpayers’ money will be spent getting HS2 to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. To continue the line to Scotland would cost tens of billions more.

    £1 billion will be spent in this parliament just planning HS2. At a time of cuts to essential services, this is not the right priority for our money.

  • Surely the main advantage of high speed rail is the potential for fast travel from Britain north of London to the continent. To get the full advantage we need to join Schengen and end timewasting and pointless border checks. I would like to see Julian Huppert calling for that, as soon as possible.

  • @Jon Hunt

    HS2 won’t ease the pressure on Heathrow, only 7% of traffic is domestic anyway.

  • Dr Huppert, I think you’ve been taken in by the pro-HS2 spin here without delving deeper into the facts. But that was also evident from your speech in the Commons debate on Thursday where you seemed to ignore comments from previous speakers and just read your prepared statement. As you will have heard in the debate, opponents of HS2 completely agree that there’s a capacity issue so it’s disingenuous to imply otherwise. But there are alternative, less expensive, less damaging and SOONER ways to solve the capacity problem (read railway expert Christian Wolmar’s comments on this). The West Coast Line’s capacity is estimated to be full far sooner than the planned completion date of HS2, so the taxpayer is expected to fork out £32bn and even then there’ll be several years where the WCML capacity issue isn’t solved by HS2!

    Your assertion that HS2 is part of a “sustainable transport” system also naively assumes that it must be sustainable because it’s a railway.The DfT’s own report “Delivering a Sustainable Railway” (July 2008 6.14) states that 350km/h trains use 90% more fuel than 200 km/h trains – that’s hardly sustainable and one reason why HS2 is opposed by the Green Party, Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, Campaign for Better Transport, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and many other environmental groups. The fact that the line has been designed to cope with totally unnecessary speeds of up to 400km/h has meant that the route has had to be relatively straight, meaning it can’t avoid sensitive areas, communities and an officially protected Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. In addition it doesn’t even serve the comunities which it is set to damage, unlike HS1 in Kent which at least has some of the trains stopping.

    I have voted Lib Dem for all of my life and supported the coalition, but your support of HS2 means that I can no longer do so. We need to spend more money on the rail network as a whole rather than waste vast sums on one extra fast line that will serve mostly the well-off. It is a complete folly – the poor are going to be subsidising the rich for years to come. It’s quite bizarre for the Lib Dems to be supporting this waste of public funds in this way.

  • Old Codger Chris 18th Oct '11 - 9:05pm

    We all know it will cost far more than the eye watering estimates. And there’s every chance that commuting levels – both domestic by train or whatever, or international by air – will fall due to progress in IT and ever rising fuel prices.

    HS2 may be a white elephant almost before it’s complete.

  • Lorna Dupre 19th Oct '11 - 7:19am

    What about the vast number of towns, including several significant towns in Cambridgeshire, with no rail connectivity at all? Wouldn’t it be better to focus on putting more communities within reach of railway services (and improving bus connections to them) thereby boosting their local economies? What happened to integrated transport?

  • I agree with Lorna – I’m all for putting more into public transport but spending an extraordinary £32bn on one excessively fast line that serves very few is NOT the best use of public money. The whole railway network could be improved substantially for £32bn – INCLUDING solving the capacity issue on the West Coast Mainline (e.g. “Rail Package 2 Plus”). I even understand all of the lines closed by Beeching could be re-opened for less than the cost of HS2!
    I also find it extraordinary that the areas through which HS2 would pass wouldn’t even be able to access the trains. What sort of sustainable transport policy would build a brand new railway line through virgin countryside between London and Birmingham and not allow access to it for people who live there?

  • As Old codger Chris said it will cost more than stated.1 because they need to compensate fairly,which they dont seem to be doing at the moment.There are many blighted and some cannot plan to improve businesses as they do not know what will happen.2 the A11 recently was widened and bat bridges cost £500,000 .There are bats and numerous wildlife sites along the route that will be damaged.They have not even started to check about the damage to the water tables in the chalk lands.

  • I agree wth Chris that the UK should join Schengen, but actually this is not strictly necessary for ending timewasting border checks. On the Continent, the usual pre-Schengen practice on cross-border passenger train services was to do the border checks on the train, often while it was moving. [And this was also done on Eurostar in the early days, I am informed.] Also domestic passengers were always allowed to use continental international trains pre-Schengen. The irrational border measures for the Channel Tunnel, requiring pre-borading passport control, probably scuppered trains to France from north of London, and they may also explain the lack of a cross-channel inter-regional commuter rail service to allow easy carless travel between Kent and pas-de-Calais.

  • Tony Greaves 19th Oct '11 - 12:33pm

    The East Coast main line is almost full. The West Coast main line is almost full. The only way to put more passenger trains on them is to remove freight trains, already severely discriminated against. when what we really need is more freight on the railways. Who are all these people with their heads in the sand? (Perhaps people should tell us where they live so at least we can dismiss the suspicion that they are Nimbys looking for arguments).

    Of course there is an alternative – build lots of new motorways or widen existing ones to five lanes. This of course is what a lot of the people putting money into the anti-HS2 campaign would like to see.

    Tony Greaves

  • I’d love to see HS2 but there are better ways to spend the money on the rail network and on other things entirely. For 32Bn you could potentially add a cycle carriage to every train on the network so that anyone with a bike knows they can get all the way to their destination. This would make trains more practical for a lot of people making a regular journey, eg a commute, especially as fuel gets more and more expensive. You could lengthen more commuter platforms to allow more capacity to be added to some commuter trains so there are less people standing for long distances. You could build more parkway stations to encourage people visiting cities to leave their cars outside the city. The idea of HS2 in isolation is fine, the cost is not.

  • Thanks Julian – was ambivalent about HS2 previously but this has tipped me more in favour.

    Would also like to see improved rail services into and within Wales.

    The argument about most commuter journeys being London-Birmingham rather than Scotland-Manchester … one wonders if there would be more journeys on the latter if they already had a faster and more reliable service. No doubt the HS2 will make people more keen to travel between London and Birmingham, it becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    And how about that Oxford-Cambridge link one day?

  • Peter Jones 20th Oct '11 - 9:27am

    Oh dear…

    1. A station in the Chilterns is a Very Silly Idea. From the point of view of those (like me) who live in the Chilterns, it makes no sense because we can get to London pretty quickly on the Chiltern Line / Metropolitan Line anyway. For those of you supporting HS2, another station just slows the thing down making it even less econmically viable.

    2. Note how everyone always talks about the journey time TO Londpn, not to Manchester, not to Birmingham., not to Glasgow. It’s always TO London, not from London. That’s the way the money will go as well.

    3. Julian says that “the HS2 project will transfer 6 million air trips and 9 million road trips onto rail”. Er, oh yeah? The total number of air passengers between Birmingham, Manchester, East Midlands and Leeds / Bradford to Paris in 2010 was 920,499. Between Birmingham and London that figure is zero, I think, no-one in their right mind would do that. I would love to know where this “6 million air trips and 9 million road trips” figure comes from but it sounds like a very dodgy stat.

    4. Isn’t the sine qua non of the colation government reducing the deficit? I don’t see anyone suggesting that HS2 will ever make a profit. Why are we going to use money that we haven’t got to build something that will require more and more public subsidy?

    5. Nimby alert (good point, Lord Greaves, sir). My house is a good three miles from the proposed line and unlikely to be affected by noise or other disturbance. Assuming folk still want to live near London in the foreseeable future, HS2 would make my house MORE valuable as house-buyers move away from places on the line and look for similar accommodation nearby. So, thank you very much, but that’s still not a good reason to build the thing. Besides, don’t nimbys say “build it somewhere else”? Most of us that have looked at the proposals in any detail are saying “don’t build it at all”.

  • @Peter Jones: Intermediate stations can go on slower tracks, so that trains that don’t stop there rush past on the fast tracks. MOST fast, busy rail lines have a mixture of fast and slower services. Look at the East Coast Main line, where fast services that are non-stop from KX to York alternate with semi-fast services that stop at Peterborough, Grantham etc.

  • Alex Macfie 20th Oct '11 - 1:28pm

    @Peter Jones: I don’t know where you live but consider Bicester to London as an example (mainly because a station near Bicester would connect with a revived Varsity Line (East West Rail Link)); the fastest trains from Bicester North to Marylebone take about 50 minutes; a High Speed service from a station nearby might make it to London in 30 minutes or less. Some people would undoubtedly be willing to pay more to shave 20 minutes off the journey. And besides, domestic rail services on HS1 primarily serve communities from which London can be reached fairly quickly by classic rail.

  • David Evershed 20th Oct '11 - 2:40pm

    The assumptions in the business case are now having to be corrected because the are biased in favour of HS2. Costs have been understated and benefits have been overstated. The new figures are likely to show that there is no benefit to the economy from th current HS2 proposal.

    Evidence shows that economic growth in the North would be better served by a high speed rail line between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle.

  • Is “NIMBYism” what you call localism when you disagree with it?

    But setting that aside, HS2 seems to be a policy which has come from us shrugging our shoulders about a national economy wholly focused on London as the ‘engine of growth’ and laying down mile upon mile of hugely expensive high speed track simply to reinforce its dominance over the regions.

  • Old Codger Chris 22nd Oct '11 - 2:51am

    For the record – I don’t live anywhere near the HS2 route and never have. Tony Greaves is obviously right that some of the opposition comes from people who want the money put into roads – there will always be vested interests on both sides of an argument.

    I’m sure HS2 is proposed with the best of intentions. Rather like the Edinburgh tramway.

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