Originally published November 2013:
High Speed 2 will cost £50bn, including the trains. But it is an environmentally damaging vanity project, with a constantly shifting rationale for building it.
The current argument is that speed is irrelevant for the case for HS2, but that our existing railways are nearly full and the only option is to build a new high speed railway. This argument does not stand up to scrutiny.
HS2 will not add any capacity until it opens in 2026, and even then won’t help the busiest routes, into Paddington and Waterloo. HS2 is designed for long distance passengers: but the growth in rail travel is mainly commuter and regional travel. Meanwhile, building HS2 will cause years of disruption at Euston station, as well to many other parts of the railway system.
The other part of the argument, that a new railway might as well be high speed, also falls apart. According to the Department for Transport (DfT), a high speed rail line ‘only’ costs about 10% more to build than a conventional railway. They say a conventional speed railway doesn’t have as many benefits, but that’s because the claimed benefits from HS2 come mainly from time savings. In essence the DfT are saying we have to build a high speed railway, which costs £4bn extra, because a conventional speed railway isn’t high speed.
However the speed of the railway affects so many decisions made about the project, such as the limited number of intermediate stations. HS2 Ltd admit that alternatives would have a lesser environmental impact and that HS2 is not going to cut carbon. The speed means the tracks has to be much straighter, blasting through numerous sensitive wildlife sites, because curving round them would slow the trains down too much.
What’s more, the latest government modal shift figures expect only 5% of passengers to have used non-rail (air and car) transport instead. Over a quarter will be travelling simply because HS2 has been built, and 69% would have used conventional speed rail, which needs less energy. Building HS2 is the wrong choice for people who care about the environment.
When the Lib Dems joined the Conservatives to form a coalition government, many people thought that this would mean real changes. In the Department for Transport, the Lib Dem minister Norman Baker was given a completely new remit, to look into alternatives to travel. This was a chance to revolutionise the way the country thought about communicating, to encourage video-conferencing as a real alternative to travel.
When it comes to HS2 though, the Department for Transport have repeatedly dismissed video-conferencing and digital technologies. They have, after three years, acknowledged that tablets and mobile phones mean time spent travelling can be productive. Meanwhile, proponents of HS2 even argue that the growth in video-conferencing will mean more travel, whereas in reality overall long distance travel is falling.
Teenagers of today are expected to be the users of HS2 when it opens. But they are growing up in a world where they can Skype their friends, and video-conference with schools on other continents. They will use these technologies in the workplace and wonder about our obsession with face to face meetings.
HS2 is an expensive, environmentally damaging white elephant, which ignores 21st century communications. HS2 should be stopped.