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News commentary: HS2 - wrong plan, wrong price?

In December 1984 an Advanced Passenger Train (APT) ran from Glasgow to London in four hours and ten minutes, making one stop en route. The same train made the return journey in three hours and 52 minutes. Trips between the two cities have been scheduled for four hours and ten minutes, although the fastest run in the current Virgin Trains East Coast timetable takes around 20 minutes longer. Flying between London City and Glasgow airports takes one hour and 20 minutes, although allowing one hour pre-departure and another hour to get to the centre of Scottish city increases the overall journey time to around three and a half hours.

But the UK government believes the country needs more faster trains and is pressing ahead with High Speed 2 (HS2). The new network will have to be measured against the existing benchmarks. Phase 1 of the project, which is already underway, will only go as far as Birmingham and will lop 30 minutes off the current 80 minute rail journey. Later phases will bring Manchester down from just over two hours to a little more than an hour, while the expectation is that trains to Glasgow and Edinburgh will eventually take around three hours - but we will have to wait at least 15 years for that.

London to Glasgow

  • Typical train Euston to Glasgow: 4 hours 49 minutes

  • Current fastest train Euston to Glasgow: 4 hours 29 minutes

  • Fastest ever train London to Glasgow: 3 hours 52 minutes

  • Typical flight London City to Glasgow: 3 hours 30 minutes door to door

  • HS2 Euston to Glasgow: 3 hours

The travel-time figures make HS2 sound quite compelling at first but they come at a cost - £27bn for Phase 1 and £56bn for the complete project, at today's prices. The other journeys listed above are available already and the cost of the infrastructure is covered. Is shaving an hour and half off a trip from London to Glasgow really worth so much?

HS2 is really about capacity?

Its quite hard to justify how chopping 30 minutes off a trip to Birmingham is worth such money, but most pundits now quite wisely suggest that HS2's primary value will come from additional capacity rather than speed.

There are currently around 6,000 seats available into and out of Euston on Intercity express trains during peak hours, and some of them are full. Ridership is growing and additional capacity, which is undoubtedly needed, can't all be delivered through the existing network which is almost full. HS2 eventually aims to offer 25,000 seats during the peaks, but that will include journeys not only Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow but also the East Midlands, Yorkshire, the Northeast and Edinburgh.

And that's the rub. Ridership on HS2 won't come just from inexorably rising demand. There's already been tacit admittance that frequencies on the existing rail network (the West Coast, East Coast and Midland main lines) will be cut, and journey times will be extended, to 'encourage' use of HS2. As an example, the fastest trains between Nottingham / Derby to London currently take around 90 minutes while slower journeys are longer than two hours. Post-HS2 it seems very likely that all services on the existing network will call at every stop, slowing them down to two hours plus. As a result, travellers will be pushed onto HS2 to try to justify its vast costs.