HS2: the need for speed

Yes, it’s been terribly mismanaged. But we still need high-speed rail.

James Woudhuysen


Last Friday, UK prime minister Boris Johnson called the managers of Britain’s second high-speed rail link, HS2, ‘profligate’ and ‘hopeless’. He was right. Yet he is still likely to go ahead with HS2 – spending, perhaps, more than £100 billion on it. And he’d be right to do that, too.

Why? Because we have to separate the disgraceful management of this project from high-speed travel itself. While HS2 – the increasingly costly high-speed rail link that would connect London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds – has been woefully mismanaged, high-speed rail certainly deserves our support.

Part of the problem with HS2 is that it has never been argued for on its own terms – that is, as one step towards better and faster transport. Instead, all kinds of claims have been made about the benefits it would deliver, and the hype around the project has always been over the top.

Even if accompanied by 5G telecommunications networks, HS2 will never meet its intended aim of ‘levelling up’ the north, in line with London and the south-east. And given the underlying justifications for HS2 were weak, its practical implementation was bound to be weak, too.

Other justifications made for HS2 over the years have also fallen short. In 2010, Labour issued a White Paper backing HS2, celebrating the savings in CO2 from reduced air travel that it would bring. Its alleged contribution to a ‘net-zero carbon UK’ is now one of the lead rationales for HS2 offered by the government.

Predictions about its various material benefits have also stretched credibility. In 2013, HS2 Ltd, the non-departmental public body which is undertaking the project, published an utterly suspect, cost-benefit case for HS2, predicting the benefits it would bring 25 years hence. From this point on, things went from bad to worse.

In the usual manner, those quoting for the work on HS2 vastly and no doubt deliberately underestimated costs so as to win lucrative contracts. Thereafter, HS2 Ltd spent at least £600million just buying land for the route for the line.

On top of that, the whole venture has been beset by the sort of inflation, chaos and amateurism that we have come to expect from transport projects in Britain. The upshot of all this is that HS2, originally priced at £55 billion, is now projected to cost more than £108 billion.

HS2 has been all too typical of large-scale UK transport projects. London’s Crossrail is expected to have an enormous cost overrun, and it is running nearly three years late. Meanwhile, a third, £14 billion runway at Heathrow, though given the green light by parliament, is set to open at least two years later than planned, in 2028-9.

Still, HS2’s management has been particularly terrible, even beyond the issue of costs. HS2 Ltd has issued hundreds of Compulsory Purchase Orders so as to evict landed, business and household interests in its way – often paying people low or late. It has commissioned scores of reports and brought inquiries upon itself. Meanwhile, it has rewarded incoming and outgoing executives, as well as suppliers, in a thoroughly opaque manner.

HS2 now has the support of UK chancellor Sajid Javid and seemingly Boris Johnson himself, largely it seems because an upcoming report – by former HS2 chairman Douglas Oakervee – is supposed to contend that no other alternative is ‘shovel-ready’.

As such, the only arguments being made in favour of HS2 now are flimsy and negative. The remarkable mismanagement of HS2 has, in a sense, undermined the positive case for high-speed rail itself.

This is why HS2’s critics now feel emboldened to vilify the project in increasingly absurd terms. Some decry high speeds as an addictive capitalist enterprise from which only the rich benefit. They present the half-hour travelling time that would be saved between London and Birmingham as a trifling matter, as if emergency meetings in the flesh are of no import.

Adopting a feminist pose, HS2’s opponents also insist that megaprojects like this are merely egoistic gestures, vanity projects, or toys for boys.

We’re told it’s bad for our natural world, too. There’s even a heart-rending video featuring kids, doleful music and luvvies such as Emma Thompson and Annie Lennox, urging us to stand up for the trees that HS2 will destroy.

Meanwhile, critics insist that local and intra-urban transport, from buses to cycle lanes, should take precedence over national and inter-urban transport.

But, against all this, the best rationale for HS2 – a properly managed HS2, that is – is simple enough. The faster transport of goods and people is progressive. It increases the value of the objects bound up in freight, gets commuters to work and back, brings distant family members together, and much more.

HS2 and the wider rail capacity it is set to open up, amounts to an unconditional good. We must move Britain decisively into the 21st century in all aspects of travel – and high-speed, inter-urban trains must be a part of this.

HS2 is a small and long overdue step in the direction of bringing about better transport conditions for all. Its management deserves much more scrutiny, but high-speed rail still deserves our support.

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.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Rick O’Shay

10th February 2020 at 2:14 pm

Why on earth would anyone want to get to Birmingham or London more quickly? I’m perfectly happy here in the sticks and couldn’t care less if I never see a city again—-they’re filthy, polluted, concrete and tarmac dumps packed with smelly people —– you’re welcome to them.

Quentin Vole

7th February 2020 at 7:51 pm

“London and Edinburgh are nearly 400 miles apart (by rail).”
Indeed, and by other transport means as well. But HS2 won’t go to Edinburgh, the nearest it will get is Leeds, only halfway there and with a couple of stops en route. And on the other side of the country (WCML to Glasgow), HS2 trains will have to travel *more slowly* (after leaving the highspeed line) than the existing Pendolinos, because they won’t have tilting capabilities.

The whole thing is a joke, dreamt up by innumerate arts graduates – rather like other new policies, such as banning the internal combustion engine after 2035.

Hector Drummond

6th February 2020 at 3:34 pm

>They present the half-hour travelling time that would be saved between London and Birmingham as a trifling matter, as if emergency meetings in the flesh are of no import.

If this train line ever regularly delivers that sort of time-saving I’ll eat my hat. My bet is that it will hardly ever run at full speed.

In fact I’ll eat my hat if this train line is ever finished.

Matt Ryan

6th February 2020 at 3:21 pm

As others have said, 15-20 minutes off the commute to London doesn’t make any difference. The cost savings assume no one works on the train so that time saved can all be attributed as a saving. It’ll push the London commuter zone out a bit inflating some people’s housing costs but won’t bring any actual benefits to the North.


6th February 2020 at 11:55 am

It will just turn parts of the North and Midlands into suburbs of London for rich commuters. It will do nothing to alleviate the North-South divide or improve transport connections between the major cities in the North. In short, it is a waste of time and money, a major strategic error and typical of the London-centric myopia that plagues this country, which is the most centralised state in Western Europe.

Jerry Owen

6th February 2020 at 2:12 pm

ZP London is a City not a state.. but then you don’t recognize the difference between an Empire and the EU.

Jerry Owen

7th February 2020 at 8:29 am

I of course meant ZP doesn’t know what an empire is!


7th February 2020 at 1:04 pm

You’ve lost me there, Jerry. What is the weather like today in Clacton?

Matt Ryan

6th February 2020 at 3:17 pm

Blimey, a post from ZP that I (partly) agree with.

harry briggs

6th February 2020 at 11:25 am

The north needs better train services now, not in many years time, London to Birmingham should be the last part of this project not the first, concentrating on the northern rail services will also help keep those votes the Conservatives won from Labour, many northerners see HS2 as simply a way to allow city workers to live further from London and get to and from work faster.

David J

6th February 2020 at 11:14 am

I love high speed anything, and was originally in favour of HS2. But times change, and like the supersonic Concorde, a changed economic landscape has become the main driver for success or failure.
An alternative to HS2 continues to be the solution offered by High Speed UK, which offers less cost and massively better connectivity, both of which are surely HS2’s weakest links.
Link here for those interested: http://www.highspeeduk.co.uk

steve moxon

6th February 2020 at 10:49 am

False analysis by James Woudhuysen.
High-speed rail makes little sense in a country as small as England.
Not only are time savings of Leeds >< London) minimal, but the cost per mile is sky high, even before the customary Whitehall inability to negotiate a contract that doesn't rip off the taxpaper.
[Until Whitehall is fundamentally reformed no major infrastructure projects should be initiated.
— For starters, all those Oxbridge PPE parasites need replacing by those scientifically literate and numerate.]
Sucking even more economic activity to London is not the way to sort the north-south divide.


6th February 2020 at 12:01 pm

I agree that HS2 is not the answer but Japan is even more densely populated than the UK with comparable distances and they have had a (highly successful) high-speed network since the 1960s.

Quentin Vole

7th February 2020 at 9:09 am

Japan has major conurbations at opposite ends of the country (see also: Germany). If our second city was in Caithness, high-speed rail might make sense. But it isn’t and it doesn’t. If (and it’s debatable to say the least) more capacity is needed on N-S rail links, a traditional 4-track rail line could be built for a fraction of HS2’s cost.


7th February 2020 at 1:07 pm

QUENTIN VOLE — London and Edinburgh are nearly 400 miles apart (by rail). That would seem an ideal distance for a high-speed line. The real economic drag is the appalling connections between the major urban centres of the north, and the Tory halfwits in Whitehall obviously have no interest in regenerating North Britain because it is a land they do not understand.

Ed Turnbull

6th February 2020 at 10:14 am

HS2 is another ridiculous vanity project. The claimed ‘benefits’ are trivial, and I doubt would withstand any serious cost / benefit analysis. It ought to be cancelled forthwith.

If Boris is going to insist on splurging £100+ billion why not direct some of that largesse to stimulating growth within the former red wall constituencies that voted for him? He has an opportunity to undo much of the damage caused by Thatcher in the 80s and, as someone who originally hails from those parts, I’d love to see an industrial renaissance, and the return of hope and confidence that would ensue. There’s an important lesson Boris could learn by casting his gaze across The Pond to what Trump has done for the working classes – no HS2 required over there.

david rawson

6th February 2020 at 10:09 am

I’m in 2, no 3 minds about HS2 …
One the one hand I love engineering & infrastructure projects as it is investment in the country, investment in people, skills, apprenticeships etc
My own town, Chesterfield would benefit enormously from the investment ( although in my lifetime all I will experience is traffic chaos for 5 years during construction )
However the value of getting to London 15 minutes quicker ? Not sure of the point. I don’t see how a company is going to re-locate to Chesterfield/sheffield because the train journey to London is a bit quicker. The rest of the transport system ( including public transport ) is pretty dismal, unless you’re a pensioner wanting a free ride to Tesco.

as Ian W says, Manc -> Leeds, Sheff->Liverpool, Newcastle->Edinburgh, Derby-> Crewe all need improving first.
Let’s invest the 100,000,000,000 in infrastructure projects north of Watford gap

Jerry Owen

6th February 2020 at 11:19 am

If I ran a large company i would not relocate up North because of HS2 not just the fact that the time saving is minimal but it gives HS2 one hell of a hold over a companies travelling costs.

Adamsson 66

6th February 2020 at 9:52 am

But the time saved is trivial if wanted to get from Birmingham Moor street to Euston then yes it would be 20 mins faster but if wanted to get from Sutton Coldfield to Leadenhall street I would save any time at all as I would have to allow time to travel from New street station (the main one in Birmingham) to Moor street station. I|t would in fact take longer as the option of an express from new street would be lost in order to force people onto the more expensive HS2 trains.
I’m afraid this project only appeals to construction companies all major donors to Conservative party of course.

Jim Lawrie

6th February 2020 at 9:29 am

“And given the underlying justifications for HS2 were weak, its practical implementation was bound to be weak, too.” How so? – More management theory and assertion used as filler in place of journalism.

“The faster transport of goods and people is progressive. It increases the value of the objects bound up in freight,” How so? My new phone has no more value delivered in 12 hours than if it is delivered in 24.

Jerry Owen

6th February 2020 at 9:26 am

We need a long straight motorway with higher speed limits. How about a six lane motorway ( junk so called digital and smart motorways ) running from North to South with exits off of them every so often so that other places that actually exist outside of London and Manchester get a look in?
The inside lane could be kept for coaches only which could get off wherever and take tourists ( they queue up in London to get out to our countryside ) around some of our beautiful towns and cities thereby by boosting our tourism trade.
Yes trains are quick but versatility is dreadful.
I once trained it to the Birmingham NEC motor show from the SE the journey was slow ( one change ) noisy and expensive. The following year I drove, it was quicker quieter cheaper and I parked nearer to the entrance of the NEC.
How much would a return ticket to Manchester cost, the author hasn’t said yet they must have a figure in mind.. and of course you still have to get to your destination from the stations which is extra time and money.
If the author is really trying to promote HS2 he has fallen woefully short.

Ven Oods

6th February 2020 at 8:39 am

Whatever the merits of ‘high-speed rail’, there are large tracts of Britain that could do with medium-speed rail before 100+ billion gets spaffed on chopping a few minutes off London-to-Brum journeys.
‘Infrastructure’ doesn’t just mean ‘anything connecting to London’.


6th February 2020 at 11:59 am

Amen to that. New rail connections between Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester and Hull would create a major new integrated city region and act as an economic multiplier. Not that the thickos in Whitehall would understand that kind of basic economics or strategic thinking. Once again, the people of North Britain are betrayed by their southern overlords.

Ho Leephuc

6th February 2020 at 8:30 am

“egoistic gestures, vanity projects, or toys for boys”
HS2 is none of these. Its is quite simply licence to steal money off of the taxpayer.


6th February 2020 at 11:56 am

Your handle – I see what you did there!

Geoff Cox

6th February 2020 at 8:26 am

“… as if emergency meetings in the flesh are of no import.”

I did have to laugh at this line. Can anyone quantify how many “emergency meetings” are called on a single day; please explain what sort of “emergency meeting” it is that will still take 3/4/5 hours door to door to get all invoved to the meeting; and why not use the phone or video link?

ReneeW Timberlake

6th February 2020 at 8:07 am

I get paid over $98 per hour working from home with 2 kids at home. I just got paid $ 8460 in my mpreviousonth It Sounds unbelievable but you wont forgive yourself if you don’t check it….. Read more

Stephen J

6th February 2020 at 7:58 am

Surely the best infrastructure is the freest?

Build roads and let people decide what sort of use they are going to make of them.

Greenies will walk or cycle of course, unless in a hurry to a COP meeting, where only Concorde will do.

Millennials will be on the edges with their scooters and skateboards, and grown ups will be in their petrol driven cars, free to choose their next path.

What is not to like?

Stephen J

6th February 2020 at 7:59 am

Iron road…. Heap bad medicine.

Ian Wilson

6th February 2020 at 7:32 am

As someone who lives in Hull, I don’t want to get to London quicker, I want to get to Manchester quicker. HS2 is not going to help and distracts from the better smaller projects that would have more local benefit.


6th February 2020 at 11:56 am

Absolutely, but useful, intelligent projects that allow faster, efficient travel between Hull and Manchester simply won’t puff up the already inflated egos of the idiots in Whitehall.

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