HS2: heading in the right direction

The problem with Britain’s high-speed rail plan is not that it’s too big and costly, but that it isn’t ambitious enough.

On Monday, the UK government announced further details of a proposed high-speed rail link that will connect London to major provincial cities, including Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds. HS2 will use trains travelling at up to 250 miles per hour to cut journey times substantially while providing new capacity to ease the strain on the already very busy West Coast Main Line.

But there are problems. Work on the line won’t begin for years, with the first section - the relatively short hop of 120 miles to Birmingham - opening in 2026, and the full project not being complete until 2032. While there are some possible justifications for this - from the time and expense of tunnelling under London to the logistics of buying an awful lot of land - this does seem an unnecessarily long time. The cost is substantial, too: £34.5 billion at current estimates. That said, spending an average of £2 billion per year, at current prices, for the next 20 years, should not be a deal-breaker in a country with total state expenditure of nearly £700 billion per year.

HS2 won’t break the collective bank, especially considering it will create infrastructure that may well be in use for many decades to come. It would certainly be nice to sit on trains that are not hopelessly overcrowded and enjoy rapid inter-city travel. But there are also legitimate questions to be asked about whether this scale of investment might have a bigger impact if it were spent on regional transport schemes and whether trains - essentially a Victorian technology - are the best vehicle for such investment (no pun intended).

One plus about HS2 is that it has riled many in the sustainable-development crowd, which is always a good sign. They think that doing anything big that allows for easier travel is a disaster. So a critique of the proposals by the New Economics Foundation bemoans the idea that the line will encourage more people to move about: ‘HS2 is projected to generate nearly 24 per cent of its passengers from individuals that would have previously chosen not to travel. Putting these individuals in the transport system will, in part, contribute to problems like carbon emissions, reduced safety and noise.’

Allowing people to travel who might not have done otherwise could only seem like a bad idea to those who think we human beings should apologise for our presence on the planet. The rest of us should welcome such increased movement and freedom. Such is the deadweight of sustainability and planning bureaucracy on the ability of the UK to build anything - from desperately needed homes to nuclear power stations to airport runways - that HS2 would be worth the £2 billion per year just to overturn such inertia. 

Yet the striking thing about HS2 is the apparent unanimity within the governing and political classes in favour of it. The project was originally announced by the previous Labour government and has been enthusiastically embraced by the current Lib-Con administration. The only significant political opposition has come from MPs for constituencies through which the train line will pass but won’t serve - most importantly, Conservative MPs in the relatively rural areas between London and the Midlands.

This unanimity is a little odd. After all, as previously noted, the case in favour of HS2 is not exactly uncontestable: a project that in two decades’ time will make it quicker to get between northern England, the Midlands and London, when there’s not that much evidence that journey times are the most important barrier for travellers, is open to questioning. For most people, cost, reliability and the ability to get a seat are much more significant than making the trip a bit quicker. The part of the project that would make really major savings on journey times - extending the line to Scotland - either won’t happen or will take so long to come to fruition that many of those making the decisions on HS2 will be dead before it is finished.

Nor is rail the only way to achieve fast travel. Why use a Victorian system of transport when another, more recent one - the aeroplane - is both faster and potentially cheaper? The snag with planes - apart from arguments about carbon emissions - is getting to the airport, ploughing through security, checking bags and all the other hassle. On the other hand, improving local transport links to airports, building more runways and speeding up the departure process would all, quite probably, be cheaper than purchasing and digging up 300-plus miles of countryside. Yet such is the antipathy towards planes that the notion would get short shrift in the corridors of power.

Motorways, too, are out of fashion, even though they are very flexible in how they can be used for both local and national travel. There is a certain weary despising of the car, which has become a victim of its own success.

No, the train is the mode of transport that ticks all the right boxes, even though train travel is less flexible than car travel, serves far fewer people, yet manages to be at least as expensive, if not more expensive, than air travel. HS2 certainly helps to cover the blushes of a political class that has proven incapable of making a decision on the future of London’s airports, which are crying out for more capacity.

The other aspect of this odd unanimity is around the idea that HS2 will overcome the north-south divide and allow for regional development. In recent years, economic activity has become ever-more focused on London and the south-east of England, leaving behind a relatively declining north. There has, rightly, been considerable derision for the idea that a train line will solve this problem. However, the fact that so many politicians have pinned their hopes on a project whose benefits are decades away reveals their lack of other ideas as to how to stimulate growth.

Westminster and Whitehall seem to see ‘the north’ as a place drifting farther away from London, one part of the steady disintegration of the UK. Rather than treating major cities like Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Liverpool as potentially forming a great swath of economic dynamism, the assumption is that these places must be tied into London. Maybe HS2 is not so much a train line as an umbilical cord.

Given the state of political debate and the UK’s inability to modernise itself, building HS2 would certainly be better than giving the small-is-beautiful mob any reason to crow. But it would be better still if we could have a more open-minded debate about transport, growth and the future of our country.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. His book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, is published by Societas. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) Read his blog here.

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