We need HS2, HS3 and beyond

It has wasted a lot of money – but we still need 21st-century infrastructure.

James Woudhuysen


Boris Johnson’s appointment of Dominic Cummings as his special adviser has provoked much vitriol. But far less noted, and far more worthy of scrutiny, is his decision to make Andrew Gilligan his adviser on transport. Gilligan, an opponent of HS2, will insist on the project being cancelled, despite the £4 billion in costs already incurred. Given that Boris and plenty of his cabinet are also longstanding critics of HS2, chances are that Gilligan will have his way.

Cancelling HS2 would save Boris money and appease both NIMBY and liberal opinion. It would satisfy pub debaters who see every megaproject as a product of either politicians’ vanity or, worse, male politicians’ testosterone. Such a move would appear to be no-nonsense and decisive. All good for Boris, perhaps.

But HS2 has strong and weak arguments both for and against. The original Labour proposal for HS2, made in 2010 by Lord Adonis, was founded on environmental grounds that were always extremely flimsy. Certainly, too, the cost-benefit analysis justifying HS2, – conducted by the most-fined accountancy firm in Britain, KPMG – was ridiculous. Attempts to justify the initiative in terms of closing the north-south economic divide overstated the power of a single line to serve long-neglected regions, especially when rail in the north is beset by problems of overcrowding, 40-year-old rolling stock, unreliability and bad connectivity.

Given the wider financialisation of the British economy, the boondoggle characteristics of HS2 should also be no surprise: it has been a gravy train for lawyers, property sharks, bean-counters, architects, consultants and planners. Much had already been spent on it before a single sleeper was laid. HS2 execs have come, gone, and cashed out handsomely.

But all of this aside, the country needs new rail infrastructure – badly. As spiked has consistently argued, we need both HS2 and what has now been dubbed ‘Northern Powerhouse Rail’ (NPR), aka HS3. On top of that, we need better conventional rail, road and air links throughout the UK. We should consider and start experimenting with 600-800kph magnetic-levitation trains, or a 460kph hyperloop, as alternatives. The rot in our transport system has gone on long enough. Britain needs to be brought into the 21st century.

Recently, the House of Lords’ Economic Affairs Committee produced a damning assessment of the costs and sheer inertia that have surrounded HS2. Strangely, the report actually laments that HS2 ‘will be faster than any railway operates in the world at present’. It calls for any final decision to proceed with the project to be based on ‘a new appraisal of the business case’. This slowly-slowly posture completely sums up the risk-obsessed mentality of the British bourgeoisie. Another delay is bad news for the country, but good news for the lords and their friends as it means another opportunity for the suits to put their noses in the trough. Naturally, the Labour Party also favours delay: shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald has called for HS2 to be subjected to an independent inquiry.

Even without these additional delays, the current HS2 schedule is grindingly slow: the London to Birmingham line will only be finished by 2026, Birmingham to Crewe by 2027, Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds by 2033 and up to Scotland at some indefinite point in the future. The fastest railway in the world cannot come soon enough.

While Boris has asked for a review of HS2, he also admitted last week that he would ‘hesitate for a long time’ before thinking about scrapping it. That kind of hesitation, we can live with.

James Woudhuysen is visiting professor of forecasting and innovation at London South Bank University. He is also editor of Big Potatoes: the London Manifesto for Innovation. Read his blog here.

Picture by: Getty.

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JeanClawed Brexit

26th August 2019 at 9:35 pm

No one agrees with you.

Oh dear.

Lord Anubis

20th August 2019 at 8:38 pm

I have always felt that HS2 is simply going to be the latest of a long line of glorious British ruinously expensive commercial failures.

1860’s Brunel’s Great Eastern. A ship so technically advanced that nobody even attempted to build anything close for another 50 years or more. A ship that was built to carry 4000+ passengers to the far east and Australia and travel there and back without having to bunker anywhere.

A Ship that ultimately was built to serve a market that never existed and which brought ruin to both her investors and, tragically, Brunel himself. (Mind, she did enable the first internet (Undersea telegraph cables))

1960’s Concord. A passenger aircraft so advanced that were one to turn up at an air-show today in 2019 she would be the star attraction and still be felt to be a vision of the future. NASA Engineers are reputed to have stated that landing a Man on the Moon was easy compared to getting the Concord to work.

Even today, there are not even a handful of aircraft ever built that could outrun a Concord! with only the SR71 that could do so over an extended distance (I can’t think of any others unless somebody else knows better). All the others would run out of fuel within minutes.

Again, an Aircraft that was conceived to serve a market that never really existed. Given the choice most people prefer to be treated like cattle as long as it is cheap. Large numbers of people paying loads of money to shave a couple of hours off a journey was never really going to fly (Sorry! 😉 ) People moan about Ryanair, but the planes are always full! He provides the service that people really want.

And here we are in 2020, not quite 100 years on from Concord or 200 from Leviathan (But it might be by the time HS2 is completed :/ )

And the same applies really. Who are the people who are going to be willing to travel in such numbers and at such a cost in 10-20 years time to make this fantastic expenditure worthwhile?

HS2 is just going to be yet another ruinously expensive but nevertheless useless wonder (Pretty much the definition of a “White Elephant”) that has been built to serve a market that simply doesn’t exist.

As others have said. If we have 50-100Bn to spend on railways, reacquire the RoW’s and rebuild the branch lines. Unlike back in the 1960’s Most of these would today be very popular routes.

Alternatively, we could have a nice Post-Brexit manned space program with maybe a Manned landing on Mars to aim for. The costs are comparable!

Alan Chapman

2nd August 2019 at 6:33 pm

I agree we need ’21st century infrastructure’ but HS2 isn’t the answer. Instead, a whole raft of smaller projects that build on and improve the current transport network would be better.
As an example, the PM last week enthused about a new rail line from Manchester to Leeds (with new tunnels under the Pennines we are talking £billions rather than £millions and decades rather than years). However, we already have two existing routes between these cities with city centre to city centre journey times are about 45 minutes (including a Huddersfield stop).
Meanwhile, immediately south, today there are no trains between Manchester and Sheffield as the Hope Valley trans-Pennine route is closed due to the risk of the damn giving way at Whalley Bridge. The alternative Woodhead route (via Penistone) was closed in 1981 but the track-bed remains un-built on the Woodhead tunnel (only iopened in 1954!) remains usable. This 15 mile gap could be re-opened for a few £100 million in a matter of a few years, connecting up the existing network better, providing alternative routes and taking freight of the existing routes to free up capacity there.
For the cost of one HS2 you could have hundreds of localised improvement schemes with local, regional and national benefit.

In2 Minds

30th July 2019 at 10:09 pm

Cancel HS2 as soon as possible.

James Knight

30th July 2019 at 6:51 pm

Don’t forget some parts of the North still have infamous “pacer” trains that are basically buses on rails. Some of these heaps got exported to Iran but it turned out that even Iran didn’t want them.

Alan Chapman

2nd August 2019 at 6:16 pm

The Pacers still in service are due to be withdrawn by December 2019 anyway as they are no longer deemed compatible with disability access legislation (not being step-free). Built in 1985 as a ‘stop-gap’ they probably helped some lines stay open in the lean times of the 80’s and 90’s but there is already a lot of more modern rolling stock about and more coming on stream to replace the 34 year old Pacers.

Puddy Cat

30th July 2019 at 4:10 pm

By the time the rail unions have their claws into this means of transport you will be measuring journey times in days. Four billions is still small change when you’re talking in terms of 50, 60,70 billion (Crossrail and counting. Greta Thunberg is going by boat she should be staying with video conferencing. Yes, technology has caught up with HS2. Presence of mind and absence of body.

Mark Lipscombe

30th July 2019 at 2:18 pm

As soon as I read ‘Hyperloop’ I realised that the author had no credibility…

Ven Oods

31st July 2019 at 7:58 pm

Because you think he’s hyper-loopy?

Stewart Ware

30th July 2019 at 12:36 pm

The whole reason for the line having to be high speed has been made obsolete by progress in technology. The reason for high speed is that business people could be more productive because they could get to and from their meetings in less time. Leaving aside the criticism about taxpayers money being spent on people who earn far more than the average worker, this segment of the travelling population is small compared to those travelling for leisure or meeting friends and family. In the meantime, as technology has improved to allow working on trains, some business people have appreciated longer journey times because it allows them more time to complete their reports and emails on their laptops. We don’t need the speed, we just need the capacity, as Andrew Adonis, an early promoter, has said. It would save a huge amount of money. Perhaps the existing West Coast main line could be upgraded at a huge cost saving. Similarly the railways in the north could probably be vastly upgraded at far lower cost than building new lines.

Jerry Owen

30th July 2019 at 8:51 am

Doesn’t the HS2 line save something like 20 minutes from London to Birmingham ?
If so it isn’t worth pursuing. Open up the old closed lines renovate them and reuse them .

Simon Maxwell

30th July 2019 at 10:42 am

Close, Jerry. Journey times between London and Birmingham will be cut from 1 hour 24 minutes to 49 minutes – just over half an hour. But, yes, I agree with you. Cutting journey times by half an hour is not worth the cost of £55 billion.

Britain is a small country. We are not China. We don’t need high speed rail.

Jerry Owen

30th July 2019 at 4:29 pm

Correction duly noted !

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