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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.

While faster journeys might be appreciated by travellers in the areas HS2 serves they will almost certainly involve higher fares to pay back the construction costs. And the new line won't reduce travel times for those using intermediate cities such as Coventry, Peterborough or Leicester either, as HS2 won't serve them. So HS2 is likely to be good news for some travellers and bad news for others, while everyone who uses it is likely to have to pay more than they will if they use a slower conventional service.

The Heathrow conumdrom

The idea of routing HS2 via Heathrow was actively explored but dropped on cost grounds. Instead, a station will be built at Old Oak Common on the western edge of London, and passengers travelling from the UK's busiest airport will have to make a dog-leg back to the airport, extending their journey times and reducing convenience. Its ironic that another runway will be built at the airport to accommodate growth at a cost of £14bn (around a quarter of the cost of HS2). Could not at least some of that growth have come from reallocating precious runway slots away from domestic flights and on to international routes, with passengers completing the intra-UK part of their trips on HS2? The opportunity to route HS2 through is now gone, thanks to the pro-railway lobby being more powerful than aviation. And if nothing else, the lack of a HS2 station at Heathrow points to a lack of integrated planning of the UK's transportation system.

Value for money?

Getting back to HS2 as it is now planned though. If we accept that additional capacity is needed, questions have to be asked about whether the current project is the best way of delivering it. A road typically costs around £10m per mile, while high-speed lines in other countries have come in at around a tenth of the price of HS2. Even the proposed Los Angeles to San Francisco high-speed line is expect to cost 'only' around £80m per mile.

Each mile of HS2 is expected to cost £402m and the eight miles stretch from central London West Ruislip will cost £8bn alone (£1bn / mile). Admittedly, the ridiculously high cost of HS2 comes in part from decisions to put so much of it in tunnels near London and areas of naturual beauty across the country (sadly another case of aesthetics triumphing over practicality and affordability).

But in 2013 John Cridland, director general of the CBI, said: "The value for money test has to be properly applied. There is a strong case for the money to be spent on boosting rail capacity on the [existing] West Coast Mainline."

A month later Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors added his thoughts: "We agree with need for key infrastructure spending, but… it is time for the government to look at a thousand smaller projects instead of… one grand folly."

Alternatives

The campaign group 51m, made up of 17 authorities affected by HS2, has challenged the project. Its position statement says:

  • We are not opposed to the need for higher speed rail per se and fully acknowledge the need for strategic improvement to the national rail infrastructure but cannot agree with the current proposals as the economic and environmental benefits are not at all credible.

  • We are opposed to the current High Speed rail proposals and do not believe that they are in the best interests of the UK as a whole in terms of the benefits claimed in the business case.

The group produced a paper, The 51m Alternative Infrastructure Investment Strategy, which proposed "investing in existing rail and road routes, accelerating delivery of some ‘shovel ready’ schemes, and addressing commuter congestion in the near future rather than in 20 years."

It also suggested increasing the capacity of the existing north-south rail network to remove bottlenecks and extend platforms and trains would cost £2bn (including contingency), while restoring and upgrading the nation’s roads would run to another £14 billion. That's still less than a third of HS2.

The House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee has produced a report that claims that the government has not provided a 'convincing case' for HS2: "The government has not carried out a proper assessment of whether alternative ways of increasing capacity are more cost-effective than HS2."

The Lords also questioned the need for HS2 to run at 250mph, pointing out that this would increase the cost of the project compared to a slower line. Meanwhile, a plan developed by HSUK (High Speed UK) claim a high-speed rail link between London and Glasgow could be delivered for £20bn less than HS2. HSUK produced a report entitled HS2: High Speed Trains, Low Speed Brains which suggested £21bn is being wasted on the product. The group's alternative plan includes a four-line system running alongside the M1 motorway as far north as the Midlands. High-speed spurs would radiate off it to Birmingham and Manchester while the network would continue on to Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Too late?

All the proposed alternatives and opinions, informed or otherwise, seem to be academic though. Work on Phase 1 of HS2 is already underway and a swathe of land around Euston station has been cleared in preparation for construction to start. The government seems determined to see the project progress despite the many objections that still surface.

Various media outlets claim that the UK faces an increased risk of recession. It would be an economic disaster if HS2 reached Birmingham at huge expense, but then the development stopped because the country had run out of money. Can the UK afford the full high-speed network, either in the form it is being developed or a less ambitious scheme? Could the money be better spent elsewhere?

With these questions remaining, the biggest problem of all is that the government seems unwilling to properly address those who challenge the project, while all the time its cost is escalating.

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