The Independent View: What’s wrong with HS2?

HS2 Brick WallHigh speed 2 easily cleared its first parliamentary hurdle yesterday, with just 34 MPs voting against the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill – 350 voted in favour. Here Penny Gaines argues the case against HS2 is still strong.

High Speed 2 will cost £50bn, including the trains. But it is an environmentally damaging vanity project, with a constantly shifting rationale for building it.

The current argument is that speed is irrelevant for the case for HS2, but that our existing railways are nearly full and the only option is to build a new high speed railway. This argument does not stand up to scrutiny.

HS2 will not add any capacity until it opens in 2026, and even then won’t help the busiest routes, into Paddington and Waterloo. HS2 is designed for long distance passengers: but the growth in rail travel is mainly commuter and regional travel. Meanwhile, building HS2 will cause years of disruption at Euston station, as well to many other parts of the railway system.

The other part of the argument, that a new railway might as well be high speed, also falls apart. According to the Department for Transport (DfT), a high speed rail line ‘only’ costs about 10% more to build than a conventional railway. They say a conventional speed railway doesn’t have as many benefits, but that’s because the claimed benefits from HS2 come mainly from time savings. In essence the DfT are saying we have to build a high speed railway, which costs £4bn extra, because a conventional speed railway isn’t high speed.

However the speed of the railway affects so many decisions made about the project, such as the limited number of intermediate stations. HS2 Ltd admit that alternatives would have a lesser environmental impact and that HS2 is not going to cut carbon. The speed means the tracks has to be much straighter, blasting through numerous sensitive wildlife sites, because curving round them would slow the trains down too much.

What’s more, the latest government modal shift figures expect only 5% of passengers to have used non-rail (air and car) transport instead. Over a quarter will be travelling simply because HS2 has been built, and 69% would have used conventional speed rail, which needs less energy. Building HS2 is the wrong choice for people who care about the environment.

When the Lib Dems joined the Conservatives to form a coalition government, many people thought that this would mean real changes. In the Department for Transport, the Lib Dem minister Norman Baker was given a completely new remit, to look into alternatives to travel. This was a chance to revolutionise the way the country thought about communicating, to encourage video-conferencing as a real alternative to travel.

When it comes to HS2 though, the Department for Transport have repeatedly dismissed video-conferencing and digital technologies. They have, after three years, acknowledged that tablets and mobile phones mean time spent travelling can be productive. Meanwhile, proponents of HS2 even argue that the growth in video-conferencing will mean more travel, whereas in reality overall long distance travel is falling.

Teenagers of today are expected to be the users of HS2 when it opens. But they are growing up in a world where they can Skype their friends, and video-conference with schools on other continents. They will use these technologies in the workplace and wonder about our obsession with face to face meetings.

HS2 is an expensive, environmentally damaging white elephant, which ignores 21st century communications. HS2 should be stopped.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

* Penny Gaines is a founder member of Stop HS2 and edits the Stop HS2 website.

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46 Comments

  • Martin Lowe 1st Nov '13 - 4:56pm

    Teenagers of today are expected to be the users of HS2 when it opens. But they are growing up in a world where they can Skype their friends, and video-conference with schools on other continents. They will use these technologies in the workplace and wonder about our obsession with face to face meetings.

    I bet you believed all that stuff about the ‘paperless office’ too…

  • Lindsay Reid 1st Nov '13 - 5:51pm

    If we really were going to build a train for the future, we should really grasp the future and go with the hyperloop concept. It’s faster, greener, cheaper to run and maintain and Britain could become world leaders in the technology.

    Whatever the pros and cons of HS2 itself, it is based on oold technology. You can bet that if and when it launches Hyperloop will be up and running elsewhere in the world and it will look like the UK has stayed in the canal age.

    Of course no UK politicians will go out a limb for the hyperloop and , as they have found in California, there are powerful vested interests in using old technology. Unlike HS2 though it has raised money from the private sector.
    http://www.crowdfundinsider.com/2013/10/25480-elon-musks-hyperloop-dream-continues-move-forward-jumpstartfund/

  • Our objective should be to reduce peak time travel by at least 50% by 2025 thereby reducing commuters costs and avoiding spending at least 50 billion

  • “The west coast main line is full in many places.”

    Having travelled on a mostly empty train on that line earlier this week, I can only wonder where those places are.

  • Andrea Polden 1st Nov '13 - 7:18pm

    I just totally fail to understand where all the passengers – sorry, “customers” – will come from. At 18 trains an hour with 1,100 seats, that’s nearly 20,000 seats per hour, times however many hours the timetable runs for. Even if only 14 or 16 trains per hour are run to start with, that’s still over 15,000 per hour! As Beleben said in one of his blogs, HS2 will be a very expensive way of moving air around.

  • Little Jackie Paper 1st Nov '13 - 8:24pm

    Ms Gaines – as a matter of interest.

    ‘They say a conventional speed railway doesn’t have as many benefits, but that’s because the claimed benefits from HS2 come mainly from time savings. In essence the DfT are saying we have to build a high speed railway, which costs £4bn extra, because a conventional speed railway isn’t high speed.’

    So, am I then to understand that you would not object to a conventional line on this same (more or less) route then? Or are you saying that increased national rail capacity for both freight and passenger trains is outweighed by other arguments full stop?

    For me this is a straight matter of capacity and it is a source of some surprise to me that the DfT don’t make this point more often. Whether HS2 is the answer I’m less sure. But there is a problem in need of resolution here that goes beyond a Skype call.

  • Strangely HS2 is costed at 28bn, with trains costed at another 7bn. So that is 35 by my maths. Where does the 50 come from?

  • Mack (Not a Lib Dem) 1st Nov '13 - 8:53pm

    Frankly I think that HS2 is simply a justification for bunging billions in the direction of all those construction companies that fund the Tory party. Fifty billion pounds to ensure that businessmen arrive in Birmingham twenty minutes earlier! What a sense of priorities. I can think of many more productive ways of spending such a huge sum. It is nauseating to reflect that the Liberal Democrat government cut teenagers’ Education Maintenance Allowance because the country couldn’t “afford” it yet can easily find fifty billion pounds to spend on a train set for those with too much testosterone..

  • I started out as a HS2 sceptic, but articles like this are gradually moving my opinion!

    On the issue of ‘technology will make HS2 obsolete’ consider this:

    When I started my career on the railway (appropriately enough) in 1977 we had no internet, no mobile phones. Faxes were rare. If you wanted to get a message to somebody on a train you had to stop the train at a signalbox or station and physically pass on the message. Getting a message off a train meant writing it down, wrapping it in a loo roll and throwing it out of the window passing through a station! Etc. etc. etc. etc.

    Today we have the internet, mobiles, facebook, Skype, etc. etc. etc.

    And people still travel.

    In greater numbers than in 1977.

    So if the extraordinary developments of the last 36 years have failed to kill off long distance travel what is going to emerge to make HS2 redundant?

  • If you want to consider HS2, look at the arguments against. We’ve got down, in the piece above, to ‘we don’t need HS2 because you can stay at home and use skype.’ Pathetic is too weak a word.

  • Tony Greaves 1st Nov '13 - 9:54pm

    Oh dear, has LDV really not got lots of Liberal commentators bursting to write things rather than regurgitating this nonsense? Surely the likes of the BBC are doing quite enough to promote the anti-HS2 case without giving space to this string of ill-evidenced assertions?

    Tony

  • @Mack

    Congrats on replaying that patronising line about how it will let people go to or from Birmingham quicker, it is not as if it is the second largest city in one of the world’s largest economies that houses vasts amount of manufacturing and skilled workers in the surrounding region with a proud heritage of of being the home of Watt, Boulton and the steam engine that powered the Industrial Revolution. What a silly idea it would be to invest and improve economic opportunities there…

    If you want this country to grow and recover in a way that will make EMA payments affordable then you need the infrastructure with which to do it. Your thinking is short-term and backwards.

    @Chris

    I can assure you as someone who uses the line three times a week that more than often it is packed with standing room only. From time to time you get a bit more space but the rush hour to and from London is far from fun!

  • Eddie Sammon 1st Nov '13 - 10:40pm

    I lean against HS2 because I haven’t seen the robust economic analysis that should be made before all spending decisions. It doesn’t need to be full of fancy formulas, just a proper analysis.

  • David Allen 1st Nov '13 - 11:30pm

    Eddie Sammon said “I lean against HS2 because..”

    Gosh, a political commentator who doesn’t think he knows it all for certain, about a deeply complex technical issue on which he has no specialist knowledge. Elect that man!

  • Eddie Sammon 1st Nov '13 - 11:35pm

    I mean, it doesn’t even have to be robust, just something that tells me an economist didn’t say “infrastructure” and the quad replied “HS2”. Some sort of genuine attempt to scrutinise the alternatives and not just pick the biggest.

  • Eddie Sammon 1st Nov '13 - 11:35pm

    Lol! Thanks David!

  • >I just totally fail to understand where all the passengers – sorry, “customers” – will come from.
    The elephant in the room is unconstrained population growth. When HS2 is completed there will, according to ONS forecasts, be an additional 10~20 million people living in Britain. This combined with the changes to the retirement age, will result in a much larger working age population, who we can expect to form the majority of the travellers/users of our roads, railways and airports.

    Personally, I would rather see money spent on universal high speed broadband as with this infrastructure in place, it will be come more natural to meet online, in much the same way as today we happily use internet and telephone banking and rarely stepping into a branch, when only a few decades back we travelled to our local branch to perform the same actions.

  • Eddie Sammon 1st Nov '13 - 11:45pm

    Sorry I didn’t mean to sound that cynical of the decision making process. Continue your debate…

  • @ATF
    The WCML is only packed on certain trains. I’ve regularly travelled into London and through a little experimentation have found trains (during the morning and evening rush hours) that most of the time enable me to get a seat without a reservation. But then I do understand that some services – particularly the long distance ones eg. the Friday evening rush hour trains out of Euston to Liverpool etc. are crowded and best avoided if possible…

  • David Allen 2nd Nov '13 - 12:12am

    “I would rather see money spent on universal high speed broadband as with this infrastructure in place, it will be come more natural to meet online”

    Interesting point. So why has rail travel doubled over the last two decades, well ahead of population growth, and despite the new capability to skype or teleconference instead? That’s the key question.

    Personally – for business purposes I rather like telecons. They tend to cut the cackle and resolve issues efficiently, better than face-to-face in fact. But for meeting the family – Skype is a poor substitute for the real thing. The real thing is picking up the baby, playing with the child, starting a serious conversation late at night after finishing the bottle over dinner. Skype does none of these things. Which is a pity, because we’re going to have to stop burning that diesel.

  • Mack (Not a Lib Dem) 2nd Nov '13 - 12:16am

    @ATF

    I know that Birmingham is a wonderful place because I was at university there. I will be even more patronising and suggest that your reply is factitious. The issue is not whether Birmingham warrants long term investment but whether it is necessary to spend 50 billion pounds of public money in order that passengers can travel between Birmingham and London and arrive at their destination a few minutes earlier. If the Liberal Democrats and the Tories are still in power when this pointless line is built and generating all its assumed benefits do you really think that the coalition will be restoring EMA? I wish I could be so certain. I should think it is as likely as the coalition abolishing tuition fees!

  • “HS2 will not add any capacity until it opens in 2026, and even then won’t help the busiest routes, into Paddington and Waterloo.”

    Well, on the former, there’s a £15bn project that will help the GWML’s issues, and on the latter, there’s five spare platforms and their spare tracks that have been kept empty for the past six years.

  • David Blake 2nd Nov '13 - 8:39am

    I fail to see where all these new passengers will come from. I go to Birmingham from time to time and the trains are no more than half full.

  • Peter Watson 2nd Nov '13 - 9:04am

    @David Allen “why has rail travel doubled over the last two decades”
    But is that growth the same type of rail travel that will be addressed by HS2? Commuter trains are packed and uncomfortable but there is space in off-peak trains. Will the extra capacity of HS2 actually be useful?
    And will reducing the rail part of business travel really open up Birmingham and cities further north? If a business person has to travel into London, make a connection to HS2, travel to Birmingham/Manchester, connect to another rail service or pick up a taxi or hire car and then drive out of the city in order to get to a factory …will twenty minutes less in one of those stages suddenly make Birmingham ripe for huge investment? Or will it simply make it a bit easier to commute to London and suck investment out of those cities?
    To me it seems that HS2 is a worthy idea but I am not convinced that it is the best infrastructure project in which such a huge amount of money could be invested. Universal high-speed broadband could be a more valuable investment for everybody outside London: after all, growth in internet usage dwarves the doubling in rail travel, and in a knowledge-based economy is better mass transportation of bodies really the future?

  • What a load of twaddle. If you read Newspapers from the 1830’s, ( I am old enough to remember!!), you will find similar arguments, we do not need speed, damage farmers lands, scare the animals, they won’t give milk, the cost, we have roads and canals, that’s enough. Then we go to the 50’s, and motorway plans, again the same sort of approach, I can remember how Marple’s plans were castigated by the stick in the mud types. We have got to see the world as it will be not what it is, and in 20 years it will not be as it is now and the high sped rail network will be required. Does the writer have any appreciation of how long and the costs involved in upgrading the present system. Just to do 20 miles of extra double line track in the Lichfield area to speed up the West Coast line through Trent Valley took 18 months to 2 years. Of course the passenger traffic will be there, the world just gets smaller and smaller and by 2035 we will probably be unable to recognise the place, technology being what it is. Lets get on with it, stop wittering, it should have been done 20 years ago, you cannot put it off for ever.

  • David Blake 2nd Nov '13 - 11:02am

    Theakes, I already hold meetings by Skype rather than travelling and that will only increase. Interesting that the loudest clapping on this week’s ‘Question Time’ (from St Austell) was when a panellist called for more nationalisation.

  • Hi David, being a very regular West Coast line user, have to dispute your numbers. Also remember since privatisation and the line upgrade which took years and years because of the problems left by nationalisation. Service has almost doubled and passenger numbers are higher than ever, and apparently growing year by year.
    I used to commute daily from the Midlands to London in the 80’s and can assure you that the numbers travelling were overall much less then than now. If you took away the Friday evening scrum you had to look for passengers. People always linger back to what they think are the “good old days”, when in reality they were not. There were less trains, less comfortable, slower and prices were in fact higher, there are so many bargains about if you take the time to pick and choose. We need to look forward not back.

  • Michael Parsons 2nd Nov '13 - 12:27pm

    @ Bill Courtenay
    Looking at the article you reference, makes me think HS2 will, if oroceeded with, be yet another failure to use British inventiveness, so we wil lbe buying back the developed results of our own ideas from overseas in a decade or two, again.

  • David Blake 2nd Nov '13 - 1:06pm

    I read that Nick Clegg has said that there’d be no coalition with Labour if it didn’t support HS2. If true, this is absolute madness.

  • Tony Greaves 2nd Nov '13 - 1:42pm

    Labour are in favour of HS2. They just have to cope with egoists like Balls.

    “Interesting that the loudest clapping on this week’s ‘Question Time’ (from St Austell) was when a panellist called for more nationalisation.”

    And the relevance of this to HS2 is?

    Anyway the Commons gave the paving bill a huge majority and the project is on track.

    Tony

  • Alisdair McGregor 2nd Nov '13 - 6:14pm

    @michael butlin

    1. Continental loading (allow for standard 40′ containers)
    2. Double stack
    3. Heavy track loading
    4. Overhead Electricity
    5. Upgrade existing tracks to standards above
    6. Build from regional cities

    As much as I would love to see the UK move to Betuweroute standard, doing so on all lines is unlikely to be practical in cost terms, or necessary in passenger terms. I would love to see some rationalisation of the variety of loading gauges around the UK, if only to make rolling stock cascades easier, but there has to be a business case – one can’t just throw money at an issue without knowing that it’s worth it.

    Sadly we are stuck with some of the decisions made in the early years of the railways, and without a major war to clear the bridges and necessitate rebuilding (the second world war being a major reason the continent has a much more adaptable loading gauge), we’re not going to be able to just demolish everything and start from scratch purely for the benefit of the railways.

  • @theakes
    “What a load of twaddle. If you read Newspapers from the 1830′s, ( I am old enough to remember!!), you will find similar arguments, we do not need speed, damage farmers lands, scare the animals, they won’t give milk, the cost, we have roads and canals, that’s enough.”

    Whilst we can and do smile at the Victorian objections to speed, let us remember that in the 1830’s going faster than a horse was a new human experience and a step into the unknown, HS2 is slightly different, railways lines dedicated to speeds higher than 250km/h have been around in various forms since the early 1960’s, and hence there is a lot of experience upon which to draw. So whilst we could draw parallels, the important thing is to do as you suggest “We have got to see the world as it will be not what it is, and in 20 years it will not be as it is now”, as yet I’ve seen no argument for HS2 that isn’t a throw back to the 1960’s, so HS2 is okay if you see the world in 20 years being a rerun of the 1960’s…

  • “Hi David, being a very regular West Coast line user, have to dispute your numbers.”

    Well, I’ve just travelled on that line again today, and my standard class carriage going into London was only about 15% full.

    I then transferred to a Tube train which I could barely get on to, and then a suburban rail service going out of London which was about 50% full (the train on the next platform was standing room only).

  • Mack (Not a Lib Dem) 3rd Nov '13 - 10:27am

    To characterise those who are opposed to HS2 as reactionary dinosaurs who are anti all forms of progress is to miss the point. We simply have different priorities and are keenly aware of the opportunity cost.

    500, 000 new council homes could be built with the fifty billion that is proposed to be spent on the HS2 vanity project. This would not only considerably address homelessness and obviate the appalling bedroom tax, it would be a more equitable distribution of the money enabling the whole country to benefit. The HS2 proposal is a gross insult to the majority of the population who are facing a cost of living crisis created by the Lib Dem government. Workers in the public sector have had their pay frozen for years in the interests of “the national interest” yet the Lib Dem government can find egregious sums of money to ensure that people who waste a huge amount of time anyway can have twenty more minutes to waste.

  • Michael Parsons 3rd Nov '13 - 12:10pm

    @Tony Greaves
    Perhapsthe relevance is that Parliament happily “progresses” anything that serves the interest of the British oligarchy – the Landed Interest or the Financial Interest – and its allies. Recall the massive land-grab from the People called “enclosures!. In 600 years there seem to have been very rare exceptions to such conduct – such as shown post 1906 and 1945; and back in the 1640’s when our Republic abolished the wretched place, but unfortunately failed to follow this up with a programme of land redistribution.
    The Party system we have inherited does not meet our democratic needs and is shunned by the vast majority; HS2 is an example of its tax-manipulation in favour of the wealthy profit- takers and even French nationalsed industry I suspect. To maintain their illiberal hold over us, the money-serving Parties and Parliament seem to be treating investigative journalism as terrorism by currently arresting people for carrying information; and breaking into newspaperoffices (revenge for the Parliamentary expense disclosures, perhaps?); and forbiding you or me from setting up a charity to fight an election candidate on some particular issue; guarantee themselves a comfortable five-year tenure; and open our mail.
    The unexpected (accidental?) resistance to arms-trade warmongering in Syria will prove to be no more than a blip, I fear.

  • @Chris

    What time were you travelling?

  • @ATF
    I’ve regularly travelled on trains that get into Euston around 08:00, so that I can be in most parts of central London before 09:00, I also frequently travel on trains into St.Pancreas with a similar time constraint. This I deem to be a reasonable compromise as it means I don’t have to leave home before 06:00.

    Whilst some are very busy, others aren’t, so you make a decision. But yes over a year I have probably stood more often on trains into Euston than into St.Pancreas, but then I don’t normally bother with a seat reservation.

  • Martin Lowe 3rd Nov '13 - 4:33pm

    Chris 2nd Nov ’13 – 7:56pm

    “Hi David, being a very regular West Coast line user, have to dispute your numbers.”

    Well, I’ve just travelled on that line again today, and my standard class carriage going into London was only about 15% full.

    “Just travelled, eh? And posted on Saturday 2nd November.

    Disputing capacity issues when you’ve used that line on a Saturday is hardly representative, is it?

  • The project fails on any cost-benefit analysis. It is a solution looking for a problem. And don’t look for ‘other ways’ to spend £50bn. We don’t *have* that £50bn. Why, when a myriad of difficult and painful decisions are being made to save 1% or 5% of that sum, do we become completely fiscally incontinent when faced with a shiny train set?

  • judy williams 6th Nov '13 - 6:56pm

    The COST of HS2.
    The present assessment of cost of 50 – 80 billion pounds is a mere drop in the ocean of the final costs.
    What no-one seems to have considered, or is prepared to publish, are the compensation costs of the blight near to the route.
    Our home is approx. 300 m from the proposed track. So no compensation.
    My husband and I purchased the property 5 years ago for £570k in a delightful village. It was envisaged that when we “downsized” in 5 – 10 years time, the equity would boost our pension plan and so alleviate the care home costs for the Gov. !!
    We expect to lose £80-100k at least, if indeed it will sell at all. IS THIS NOT THEFT ?
    There are tens of thousands of such incidences along the line, this is not a special case.
    ALSO I am totally sympathetic towards the environmental damage etc. but how about the human cost.
    Lets hear it for the people as well as the natterjack toads (in and out of parliament )

  • Dr Hill, I think that only UKIP is opposed to HS2. They are likely to pick up votes along its route.

    I had a look at your website, and have to agree with this statement:

    ‘Therefore considering everything that is on the horizon for the West the most important step forward that we can do to prevent the collapse of our living standards to a point of extreme hardship over time, is to provide the creative infrastructure whereby our people’s innovative and fundamental thinking can be liberated and exploited. This to date has never been undertaken but where if Eastern economies adopt such a system and where it is only a matter of time not when, the West would never recover, as this would then be the completion of whole ‘innovation chain’, not just a part as is the currently. Therefore it is vital that the West builds this creative infrastructure first.’

    Further to this, for innovation to flourish requires a certain level of freedom for the individual. Where we are hidebound by pettyfogging rules and regulations then it dampens the risk taking required.

    Our elected representatives do need to be responsive to the needs and wishes of the electorate, otherwise we become moribund. I do fear that western civilisation as we know it will collapse within the next 3 or 4 decades.

    I wrote about the reasons for this assertion here, although not many people seem to understand the problem:

    https://www.libdemvoice.org/danny-alexander-mp-writes-we-shouldnt-fritter-away-our-eu-influence-when-we-can-lead-drive-for-jobs-and-growth-37788.html

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