The whole country needs high speed, too
Rather than debating the need for one fast rail line, the UK government should be steaming ahead with an entire network.
For the first time in decades, high-speed rail is back on the agenda in Britain. The High Speed 2 (HS2) project proposes a brand-new line from London to Birmingham, with two spurs continuing northwards to Manchester and Leeds. (The plan is to extend eventually all the way to Scotland.) At a total cost of £34 billion, it would reduce journey times between London and Birmingham from 72 minutes to 49 minutes, London and Manchester from 128 minutes to 80 minutes, and London and Leeds from 140 minutes to 80 minutes. The project would create an estimated 30,000 jobs. In the midst of an austerity budget, the HS2 offers a welcome proposal for investment and growth.
Although construction is still frustratingly far away, due to begin in 2016 and to be completed by 2032, the proposal has already met fierce opposition from AGAHST – Action Groups Against High Speed Two. AGAHST claims there is ‘no business case, no environmental case, and no money for it’.
AGAHST has produced a list of ‘Myths and Facts About HS2’. One ‘myth’ is that HS2 would be good for the environment. The group points out that the 250mph trains will use more power than 125mph trains and that faster journey times will encourage more people to travel. Another argument put forward is that there is no ‘business case’ for HS2 – there simply aren’t sufficient business users itching to get in and out of London, but who are deterred by current journey times, to justify its existence.
Meanwhile, London mayor Boris Johnson, the most high-profile figure to oppose the project, is also concerned that HS2 will lead to twice as many passengers using London’s Euston station every morning, leading to gridlock. So, the opposition to HS2 simultaneously believes that too few people will use it to justify its existence and so many people will use it that one of London’s biggest railway stations will grind to a halt.
A more significant driver of opposition is the fact that the stretch from London to Birmingham will go through the Tory heartlands of Buckinghamshire and Warwickshire. AGAHST has attracted support from landowners using the conservation argument for their own personal interest. But they are quick to state that opponents to the project are not ‘luddites and nimbys’. Apparently, the crucial reason for their opposition is based entirely on financial grounds.
The HS2 isn’t good value for money, they say, the benefits have been exaggerated, and the competition from conventional rail has been overlooked. AGAHST favours smaller improvement schemes to the existing network, and points out that ‘if each constituency was given an equal share of the £33 billion, they would have £51million to spend locally’. Similar arguments are made by an all-party group of MPs in an open letter to the transport secretary, Justine Greening, last weekend. The MPs believe transport improvements could be made quicker using existing ‘slow’ lines. But that misses the point that HS2 would solve a significant problem: that fast trains get stuck behind slow trains on the overcrowded lines. Putting inter-city traffic on to new, TGV-style track seems like a better idea than tinkering with the existing infrastructure.
The chairman of AGAHST, Jerry Marshall, argues that ‘HS2 is about as sensible as building a high-speed canal network 15 years after railways took off’. He maintains that audio conferences and broadband internet have eradicated the need for high-speed transport in general. While it is indisputable that audio conferencing has replaced the need for some journeys, extending this logic to argue that high-speed rail is now obsolete seems perverse.
The next myth, says AGAHST, is that the UK lacks fast connectivity between our major cities. ‘Journey times between our major cities are faster than our European competitors.’ The mind boggles. The members of AGAHST have clearly never been to France, where the extensive TGV network puts British trains to shame. Four of Britain’s largest cities – Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Hull – are connected by the perversely titled Transpennine Express, which has an average speed of 40mph. HS2 won’t solve that particular problem – though plans announced today for the electrification of the line from Manchester to Leeds are a step forward – but that’s the point: Britain needs HS3, HS4 and HS5, too. With the exception of the Channel Tunnel, practically nothing has changed for British rail transport in the past 35 years. In 1938, the steam locomotive Mallard reached 126mph on the East Coast mainline. Today our ‘high speed’ trains manage 140mph. Compared to other forms of transport and compared to other countries, British railways are lagging behind. Perhaps AGAHST was referring to Albania, Romania and Belarus as our ‘European competitors’.
The then-transport secretary, Phillip Hammond, triumphantly announced at last year’s Conservative Party conference that HS2 would ‘change the social and economic geography of Britain’. If that seems depressingly simplistic, the counterargument from AGAHST makes for a good laugh. Apparently, ‘three times as many passenger journeys will be towards London, not away from it, so redistribution will end up there’. This just doesn’t make sense. Almost everyone travelling to London would go home again afterwards – unless AGAHST believes that knocking an hour off the journey time from Leeds to London will result in mass immigration to the capital. More likely is that people will be able to live outside London while working in the capital, taking the pressure off house prices in the south-east of England.
The AGAHST lobby opposes the project on the grounds that shaving 23 minutes off the journey time from London to Birmingham isn’t a big enough time saving to warrant the expense of the project. While 23 minutes obviously isn’t much, it is the first crucial step towards much more significant time savings from London to Manchester and Leeds. With an extension to Scotland, the HS2 could eventually bring the travel time from London to Glasgow from the present four-and-a-half hours down to two-and-a-half hours. While the initial benefits may seem small, the long-term implications are impressive.
Some criticisms and concerns about the HS2 are justified. As with the Channel Tunnel, it is perfectly possible that the costs have been underestimated and the benefits exaggerated. It will take far more than the HS2 to eradicate the north-south divide, and Phillip Hammond’s projections seem wildly optimistic. It could even be argued that Britain could make much more from it’s late joining of the high-speed revolution, for example by going straight to double-decker trains, or adopting the Swiss and German approaches of using far more tunnels and following motorway routes, thereby taking up less land and provoking less opposition.
Nevertheless, we should welcome a government project that advocates growth for a change. Rather than a ‘luxury we cannot afford’, former Conservative minister’s John Redwood’s predictable response, HS2 is the sort of investment in infrastructure that Britain needs.
Nick Thorne is a former intern at spiked.