From the Archives: HS2 in a digital world

This was originally published in January 2013. Not only has Simon Burns long since left the Department for Transport, but his suggestion has been quietly buried.

Transport minister Simon Burns is now claiming that HS2 will help spread high speed broadband. Articles about it were published in the Telegraph  and the Guardian – “HS2 could help spread high-speed broadband, minister says”.

However, the reality is less impressive that the headlines. The Telegraph says that “About 70 to 90 per cent of towns and villages along the route already have access to superfast broadband, but ministers claim it will benefit surrounding areas.” It’s unlikely that cables alongside the HS2 route would be an effective way of helping those with poor access to broadand, even if they are near to HS2.

The issue with rural broadband is not over better broadband for some of the communities affected by HS2: it’s about whether it is the best way of spending £33 billion [now £50 billion- ed] of taxpayers money is on another railway for a rich passengers to get to London faster.

Or is better to build a new digital infrastructure that will enable everyone to benefit from better digital connections? This could potentially help people all across the UK, including in outlying parts of the country.

Well the industry is far from impressed, eg Think Broadband HS2 proclaimed as answer to all our problems . Backing up the Telegraph they say “Many of the towns that are skirted around will already have full fibre connectivity available as of Spring 2013, and there are numerous operators with fibre links already running between Birmingham and London.”

But they have also spotted the real threat for HS2. We have been pointing out since 2010 that the HS2 forecasts do not take into account the effects that the internet will have on future demand for travel. Passenger numbers are massively below forecasts on HS1, because they did not foresee the effects of low cost airlines.

Simon Burns and the DfT have clearly got some inkling that digital technology will effect the future – otherwise they would not have made this announcement. But they are ignoring what people in the high-tech industies are saying. The Think Broadband article linked above sums the issue up well:

Projects like HS2 potentially represent a way to keep traditional industries like the construction industry busy and employing people for some years, but as more people use the Internet for video conferences and remote working the need to commute or travel to meetings is decreasing every year and by 2026 the 30 year old executives will have known nothing but an Internet connected world and work to the philosophy that any time spent travelling to a meeting is time wasted unless meeting a new customer for the first time.

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