Tuesday, 29 April 2014

HS2: a wasted opportunity to transform British transport

With the HS2 project passing its second reading in the House of Commons on 28 April, Britain is one step closer to entering the age of high speed rail at last. Despite passing with a landslide of 451 votes to 50, HS2 remains controversial. While Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin insists the improvement in rail services would reduce the north-south divide, HS2’s opponents argue that at £50 billion it is too expensive and that the money could be better spent elsewhere. But the chief objection to HS2 ought to be that it is not ambitious enough.

HS2 will connect London with Birmingham where the line will fork, with a western line continuing to Manchester and Glasgow, and an eastern line going on to Leeds and Edinburgh. Once completed it would reduce journey times from London to Leeds from 132 minutes to 82 minutes, London to Manchester from 128 to 68 minutes and London to Birmingham from 84 to 49 minutes. The first phase from London to Birmingham is due to open in 2026, and HS2 is projected to reach Leeds and Manchester by 2033.

26 Conservative MPs voted against HS2 and others abstained, citing the damage to ancient woodlands and the potentially negative effect on house prices. The fact that the route of HS2 will go through their constituencies has of course got nothing to do with it. It is classic nimbyism, clothing a self-interested agenda in pseudo-environmentalist language. 

Others claim the money would be better spent on improving the existing railways. This has effectively been the British rail policy for decades, and the result has been painfully slow progress. In 1938 the Mallard managed 126 mph and took six and a half hours from London to Edinburgh. Today the journey still takes five hours, and our trains manage 140 mph. Without new track, faster trains will still get stuck behind the slow trains, and the poor state of the track prevents new trains from reaching their top speed. 

Meanwhile a report by the Institute of Economic Affairs has deemed it “highly unlikely” that HS2 would bring about a significant economic boost to the north. The IEA reached this conclusion on the basis that HS1, the high speed Eurostar link from London to Paris and Brussels, had not brought significant growth or jobs to East Kent. This comparison is unfair, given that the objective of HS1 was to improve rail travel to the continent. 

The real tragedy of the debate on HS2 is the inability to recognise a golden opportunity to revolutionise British transport. Why not break from the existing system of expensive trains primarily serving business, and introduce a high speed network that is affordable for all? This would enable long-distance commuting, allowing job-seekers in the north to work in London, and potentially ease the strain on rent and housing in the south east. An HS2 founded on this basis could also reduce the appeal of internal flights and reduce congestion on the motorways, with train services at last being able to compete financially with the car.

Bringing down rail prices can only be achieved by increasing the capacity of trains and ensuring they are used. Why not have double-decker trains like the TGV in France, so that each train can carry far more passengers? Why not plan an HS3 and HS4 to improve the appalling services between cities such as Liverpool, Sheffield and Hull? Why not follow Germany in building the track beside motorways, thereby addressing some of the environmental concerns?

As a late-comer to the era of high speed rail, Britain has the opportunity to learn from other countries and develop a new rail transport model. The failure to grasp this chance should be the main criticism of the HS2 project.

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