Keeping up with the Joneses – or Les Français

This guest article was written by Finmere, a regular visitor and commenter to our site.

How often do you hear the argument that we are part of Europe and they have high speed railways so we must build them too? It’s like saying that if your neighbour has bought a new car, you have to get a new one as well.

But would you be willing to pay over 4 times as much as your neighbour did?  Yet that’s exactly what our government is proposing we do with HS2.

HS2 is not a straightforward railway. It cuts across a densely populated region and some difficult topography. Deep cuttings, viaducts spanning valleys, 20 kilometres of tunnels, and numerous bridges. And that does not come cheap.

These figures show the comparative costs of HSR in the UK compared with other European countries.


€106m per km


€54m per km

TGV France, LGV Est

€10m per km

TGV France, Rhine Rhone

€6m per km

TGV France, Sud Atlantique

€23m per km

TGV France, Brittany Loire

€19m per km

TAV Italy, Rome – Milan

€39m per km

RAVE Portugal, Lisbon Madrid

€12m per km

(Data from Bluespace Thinking Ltd. A Review of High Speed Rail – HS2 proposals)

Or in graphical format:

The comparative cost for building HS2 is 4.3 times higher than the European average.

Would these other countries be building these railways if the price was the same as here in the UK?

19 comments to “Keeping up with the Joneses – or Les Français”
  1. Pingback: STOP HS2 | Centro say we need WCML updates as well as HS2

  2. @Susan: How many more times does this point have to be made?! “How about we just go for higher speed trains in the UK on upgraded existing tracks/lines in spotlessly clean carriages that are on time” — we have already spent billions trying to do this! The West Coast Main Line upgrade was launched in 1998 by Railtrack with a budget of £2.8bn. It promised 140mph tilting trains that would run closer together than ever before using a novel form of signalling known as ETCS (Level 3). This was due to be installed and operational by 2005.

    Of course it didn’t happen. the upgrade dragged on to 2009 with weeks and weeks of engineering works that actually led to domestic flights gained market share on the Mcr-Ldn route! (See, and the budget soared to £9.6bn when the project was (supposedly) completed in 2009!

    Most important of all, did we get the whizzy super sophisticated signalling to funnel even more trains onto our busiest railway? Er, no. It never even got to the testing stage…and no other main line railway in the world has successfully implemented Level 3 ETCS anywhere in the world.

    Therefore what we got by 2009 was a very good service on a conventional railway, albeit one that is till prone to huge spikes of overscrowding (as any regular user, like me, would tell you). The signalling technology to alleviate this in the event of even midest passenger growth over the next 10 years or so is no nearer commercialisation, which makes a mockery of any serious suggestion that another WCML upgrade be undertaken. It’s called putting the ‘mental’ in incremental’!!

    To recap: Budget £2.8bn, cost £9.6bn…and it did NOT work!!

    • If an upgrade went 3x over budget and years past planned completion, how are we to believe that a new line, built to use a yet to be invented train, is going to be any different?

      You’ve quoted the London-Manc flights increasing, they did, arguably due to the fuel driven price advantage flights enjoy, but now passenger numbers have reduced again, and the London-Manchester rail journey is now a mere 2 hours (and no check-in / arrivals nonsense at each end). Some argue the reduction in all flights is due to the recession, but train journeys have continued to climb in numbers over the same period. The modal shift already happening? Without HS2?

      In what way did the upgrade not work?

      • @Alex: all good questions. The upgrade did work if you look at the most basic point: are London – Birmingham – NW rail services better now than in 1995? Yes, clearly they are. Although I am fervently pro-HS2, I am also a realist: I am not denying the benefits of the most recent upgrade, or indeed the extra capacity to be generated over the next few years by introduction of 11 car IC trains (currently 9 car) and shifting the balance on each one between First and Standard Class seats.

        But if we continue to see modest growth in passenger numbers over the coming years (and I am not going to engage in a nihilistic argument over exact numbers down to the nearest decimal, as many HS2 opponents would like to), then post-2020 we will reach a point where longer tarins won’t do, and more trains are required. Network Rail says that extra capacity isn’t there for that, and given we spent £10bn over the past decade trying to find it and we failed, I’m inclined to believe them.

        In other words, we are approaching the best we can get on WCML without resorting to genuinely unproven technology (CBTC technology is currently being installed on parts of London Underground and it really isn’t going well).

        So HS2: yes we would need to order new trains, and probably these would need to meet UK loading gauge, except for the London – Birmingham section which could use a European fleet bought ‘off the shelf’. However, there is aboslutely nothing new about anything suggested for HS2 — the Eurostar trains are UK loading gauge, so that is proven. The in-cab computer signalling is proven to work on new-build high speed lines (in stark contrast to retro-fitting existing lines), as are low-vibration, low noise track technologies, including ballastless options favoured in Asia.

        Finally, as high speed rail is increasingly commoditised around the world, R&D money is pouring into the field, bring down costs and accelerating work to reduce noise caused by trains running at 350 km/h plus. Regrettably little of this R&D takes place in the UK of course, thus denying our engineering graduates access to one of the world’s fastest-growing hi-tech industries.

        All of this is described in detail in the rail indutry trade media, but the technological issues are addressed seldom by HS2 opponents and are often poorly understood by MPs.

        Oh, and it struck me after my last post: if I remember correctly (and I am too young to remember the early 80s!), the proposed ‘incremental upgrade’ would be the FOURTH attempt to renew WCML after APT (1980s), IC250 (1990s, aborted due to privatisation) and WCRM (2000s)!

        Dare we repeat?!!

        • Dare we? We must! Another WCML upgrade needs to happen (and be completed) well before the completion of HS2 if the projected passenger increases are borne out.

          “aboslutely nothing new about anything suggested for HS2” except the 400km/h max design speed? Nearly twice the max design speed of HS1. It’s pretty radical really!

          • @Alex: the line speed for HS1 is 300 km/h, except in tunnel where (I think) it’s 200 km/h. The design speed is a theoretical maximum — I believe that HS2’s operating speed at launch would be maximum 360 km/h. Currently the standard for high speed rail globally is 300 km/h, with a few exceptions in Europe (Frankfurt – Köln has a line speed of 330 km/h) while the Chinese are already operating at 380 km/h between Wuhan and Guangzhou. Clearly in terms of energy consumption, going beyond 300 km/h is not a decison to be taken lightly…but equally given the rate of technological development of high speed rail, it is prudent to suggest a higher line speed for a line unlikely to open for at least 15 years (depressingly).

            As an aside, Alstom claims its new AGV trainset would consume the same amount of energy at 360 km/h as its older Pendolino design does at 200 km/h.

  3. Is this is an “apples vs. orange” comparison? In consideration of HS1, a similar cost, twice as much as the EU average, seems fairer at first sight, and less open to accusations of exaggeration. In making any claims it is vital that they are squeaky clean and fully backed up otherwise the whole point and more goes in the bin.

    Are the costs all on exactly the same basis or are some of the lower costs only for the civil engineering (tunnels, cuttings, embankments, bridges) and track with others adding in electrification and/or signalling and/or stations etc.? Are some costs on the basis that existing terminal stations are used which will be a lot cheaper than including extending Euston etc etc.?? Tax breaks or special government assistance? An accurate comparison could be very tricky. Incidentally, the linked reference does not say where the data comes from either.

    • The costs match up what I have seen elsewhere. Non-subscribers used to be able to access this sort of data from the New Civil Engineer website, but unfortunately it is now only available to subscribers.

      A booklet I downloaded from the International Union of Railways site – – says that the average cost in Europe of construction of 1km of high speed rail is €12 – 30 million. So these figures are in line with those.

    • I agree that facts and figures need to be accurate when making any claim, otherwise arguments about the accuracy of the figures distract from the substantive point.

      In this case the data source gives the total amount invested in each scheme and the length of the line. These should be easy enough to check. Divide one by the other and you get a comparative cost per kilometre.

      The substantive point is the high cost of HS2 relative to other schemes.

      • the cost of the first leg of hs2 is about £12 billion plus optimism bias that brings it to £17 billion.

        even with the higher cost per kilometer of hs2 compared with overseas projects it still has a positive benefit to cost ratio. i find it hard to swallow that you are complaining about the costs of tunnels embankments and other mitigation when the reason for these isnt purely economic, it is to try to reduce the impact of hs2 on the local environment. the more mitigation there is, which presumably stop-hs2 supports, then the higher will be the costs.

        of course we could build the line without any environmental planning as this would undoubtedly be much cheaper but i dont think anybody would be particularly supportive of this idea !

      • Dividing total cost by the route length gives a meaningless comparison as the lines are all seemingly very different apart from the speed. The article leaves the suggestion that it is a me-too rush and sheer incompetence that is leading to a huge cost per kilometre.

        The truth is more interesting: our topography is not difficult compared to other countries so forget ‘deep cuttings’, ‘viaducts spanning valleys’, the tunnels outside London and ‘numerous bridges’. Accessing our cities is the very difficult and costly bit – suburbia is a densely populated region. In countries such as France the new lines are mostly extensions or in-fills, so in effect our neighbour has already paid for the equivalent of an access road to his house, a driveway and a garage.

        HS2 costs are inflated by the fact that due to the existing infrastructure being too small (low bridges, narrow tunnels), new access has to be provided to reach city centres at great expense. In France for example, generally only minor work is required as the classic line stations are used in the major cities, slashing the costs, which can be seen in the figures.

        There is a lot of data in the HS2 ‘cost and risk model’ report which suggests that about 37% of the base construction costs (95 million pounds per kilometre) are for the first 23 km due to the cost of a new Euston station, Old Oak Common interchange and the tunnels beneath Primrose Hill etc. Intermediate sections however give a base construction cost of 12-15 million pounds per kilometre.

        A substantive point is therefore: is this a one-off price that can be shared with HS3, HS4 and HS5 making in the long run High Speed as affordable for us as for our neighbours or do city-centre access costs render High Speed unaffordable in the UK?

  4. This shock news just in from Stop HS2: “Building HS2 will cost quite a bit of money”.

    In other news, bear defecates in wood, and pope revealed to be Catholic.

  5. When our family had grown to three children my wife and I decided to buy a new car. We considered a People Carrier. The argument was that it was economical, practical and would adapt to all the needs of the various members of the family.

    I bought a Ferrari

    • when i had 4 children i should have bought a suitable vehicle with with lots of room and space for luggage and most importantly seats for everyone. so i thought about buying a 7 seat mpv but in the end i bought a small old van with 3 seats in the front only.

      the mpv was actually faster and used less fuel per passenger and had all the space we needed. but i decided to have something slower with less seats and less luggage space. so not only is everyone uncomfortable but it takes us longer to get everywhere.

      oh how i wish i had bought that shiny new hs2 instead of that second hand classic network rail van

      • When I was struggling to pay the mortgage, the roof needed mending, the boiler was on its last legs, there was plaster hanging off the walls, the kids needed new shoes and the car was about to fail its MOT – a new car was not an option because I could not afford one. So I sold the car and bought a bike instead.

  6. What I don’t get is in every other respect this Government tires to ‘distance’ the UK from EU?…but tripping out the ‘same as Europe’ argument is always there when it comes to talking about high speed trains??

    Back to basics…how about we just go for higher speed trains in the UK on upgraded existing tracks/lines in spotlessly clean carriages that are on time, reliable and not effected by the wrong snow/leaves/ice/wind and rain, running out of safe, warm, comfortable stations that have plenty of parking facilities for cars and bikes and which offer a wide range of affordable eating/drinking/retail outlets from service providers who have not forgotten how to smile and say ‘thank you’! ….wouldn’t that make UK equal to EU?

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