HS2- An academic view.

Dr. Simon Batterbury is an Associate Professor in the Deptartment of Resource Management and Geography at the University of Melbourne. Here’s his take on HS2 as recently published in A to B Magazine.

The High Speed 2 rail line from London to Birmingham is not a ‘sustainable’ transport project, for several reasons. Having just completed six months living in an HS2-blighted town (Wendover), I have had daily discussions about the project, attended a DfT roadshow, and read most of the hundreds of pages of official HS2 reports and analyses. The issues are numerous, but here are the most important as I see them.

Is HS2 in the ‘National Interest’? The economic case for the line has been overstated using speculative economic modelling, with insufficient attention to non-economic factors. Estimates of job generation from transport projects are, by the consultants’ admission, difficult to model, and only estimates exist. But we know that HS2 will funnel more jobs into London, rather than spreading them more widely. Nobody involved in the debate seriously believes a reverse flow of jobs to the Midlands, Scotland and the North of England will occur any time soon after construction.

However the main issue is spending £34 billion (plus likely overruns) on a megaproject during a major recession. To allocate this sum to provide more train capacity and a quicker journey to and from Birmingham really stretches credibility. Since there will be no commuter stops along the line, it is of no economic or social benefit to 90 percent of the people along its route. There is a real risk of poorer services by the franchises running the existing lines since they will lose long distance business (65% of HS2 passengers are predicted to come from existing lines) and there are echo effects on other lines. Leisure, tourism and long distance commuting trips would of course be easier, but tickets are likely to be costly, as HS1 has shown, depending on franchise arrangements. The Dods report published in June 2011 (pro-HS2, business-backed) surveyed a panel that included British transport professionals, and ranked their priorities. They found: “HS2 came behind the electrification and modernisation of existing rail lines (at the expense of High Speed), improving our national roads network and, in the case of transportation professionals, was even ranked as being less important than both an integrated freight network and the proliferation of light rail.” Dods Report, June 2011

Moving more freight on the railways… now there’s a thought.

Environmental Costs; There is no Environmental Impact Assessment or Strategic Environmental Assessment available for public consultation, only a brief ‘Appraisal of Sustainability’ that is sketchy on cultural preservation and focuses on ‘regeneration’ benefits. The lack of a full independent assessment for a project of this scale, prior to a decision to build, is telling.

Constructing the line will incur huge carbon emissions, and up to two million cubic metres of waste would arise from tunnel excavation, some through aquifers and river systems still not fully understood, like the Misbourne. The project, as presently conceived, might just be carbon neutral. Estimates of flight and car use reductions that it would generate are optimistic, to say the least. The Transport Studies Unit at Oxford has pointed out that total journey time, and energy use (factoring in getting to and from the stations in the first place), is more important to survey than the fabled ’travel time reduction’ that is the main selling point. Heavy car use is anticipated to reach the very few stations.

As to the route; the ‘preferred’ one through the Chilterns affects an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Metropolitan Green Belt, and a range of other sites. Even if extensive tunnelling takes place, which is currently only programmed for the rich bits to the immediate west of London, there will still be new cuttings, noise, loss of ancient woodland, and closure of tracks and lanes (over a hundred).Train noise demonstrations organised by the DfT in their recent Roadshows were unconvincing and thousands of homes will experience serious noise, some without compensation. There are churches only 200 metres from the proposed route, and a colony of endangered Bechstein bats. A to B readers would probably oppose new motorway construction; why should their views of this line, and its 250mph trains, be any different? HS2 is really a motorway to London, without the lorries, and with fewer exits.

Planning; The project is not the subject of a full Planning Inquiry as other mega-projects like Heathrow T5 have been. The only chance to comment on the proposal was through the limited means of written ‘public consultation’ by 29th July, with no other promises of consultation. The public still want to know and comment on alternatives to the whole scheme. The government seems to have its mind made up already.

Capacity; As Christian Wolmar says, ‘To oppose HS2 is not to be anti-rail’. We need more north-south train seats, for sure. But the ‘capacity increases’ from HS2 will only benefit those close enough to the stations, or able to access them easily (probably by car).A 250mph train requires straight tracks. Reduce the speed a bit and the line could circumvent localities that the HS2 documents state will be ‘unavoidably’ affected. In fact, you could put a slower, bendy line along many parts of the existing network, as previous reviews have suggested. Any loss of services on existing lines will be a capacity reduction for those train users, unless they live in London or Birmingham. The bike carriage situation is unclear – HS2 has not been touted as a bike friendly project.

The Politics; While the project is endorsed by the Labour Party (which announced it in March 2010), it has become a cornerstone of Coalition policy. Millions along the route and further afield now oppose it, including many who vote Conservative. Currently the cycling Mayor of London and the Greens are opposed to the current plan, as are transport gurus Christian Wolmar and John Whitelegg. Whitelegg said in February 2011:

‘The proposed HS2 trains would burn 50% more energy mile-for-mile than the Eurostar.HS2 would produce more than twice the emissions of an intercity train. HS2 is a ‘rich person’s railway’ – the business case assumes that a third of passengers will be on incomes of £70,000 or more.’

The project may not actually be the ‘White Elephant’ that protesters have dubbed it, but it certainly involves a leap of faith to support its aims and objectives. Sustainable transport policy should involve slower stopping trains, better use of existing cuttings and lines, affordable and regulated fares, and be based on whole-journey analysis. It should not involve the construction of a thundering non-stopper, scything through the British countryside, towns and cities. A to B appears to support the scheme (A to B 83, 84), but should reconsider its endorsement.

8 comments to “HS2- An academic view.”
  1. Why if rail transport is so efficient why does it need to be funded by all tax payers, even those that never go near a train? Car, buses, trucks and air users pay huge taxes. If rail fares were real and commercial they would be so expensive, no one would buy them. HS2 (and HS1) are an economic nonsense. It these financially difficult times, with high taxes, surely any tax payer subsidised transport is unfair.

    • Very sound points, Commonsense.
      We should certainly consider withdrawing all subsidies to all forms of so called public transport, concessionary fares, “free” bus travel etc. etc.
      Surely London, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and other major cities are sufficiently wealthy for those with initiative to seize what is rightly theirs.
      Space at former stations such as Paddington and Liverpool Street could readily be converted into car parks- just think back to the glory days of NCP Snow Hill, when cars were kings in Birmingham “Auto City”.
      Outside urban areas, there could be a revival of subsistance farming as “natural wastage” and a progressive reduction in “social security” and the eventual elimination of state pensions would encourage self sufficiency and enterprise amongst young and old alike, besides stabilising the population.
      If necessary, a return to the 19th century Poor Law legislation- or even that of the Tudor laws might be considered. Despite seeming harsh, at first sight, their application could well provide the spur we need th reward industry and reprove idleness.
      Obviously the Channel Tunnel, no longer rail connected, could become what it should have been;
      Purely an Underground Car Ferry.

  2. Maybe its time for a reminder about exactly what is being proposed here……

    HS2 is a rail construction project which connects our major conurbations in the UK. It is needed because the current set up is predicted to reach capacity in the not too distant future. Rail passenger growth has been around 6% per year and shows no sign of slowing down despite the current economic issues. Add in the population growth , and we can clearly see that more capacity is needed. There are short term measures already planned or happening ( such as extra carriages on Pendolinos ) but these will only relieve the immediate issues. Network Rail have already stated that they cannot plan any more than whats in the pipeline now….the network simply wont take it. The beauty of HS2 is that as well as providing a step change in capacity in its own right, it also allows for many extra services on the classic existing network, in particular for freight, who are chomping at the bit to get more heavy goods traffic onto rail.

    The author mentions light rail as a priority……here in Manchester , our highly successful Metrolink system ( which removed 2 million car journeys a year on one line alone ) is now in a period of significant expansion. When completed, the system will actually have more stations than the current heavy rail network in the area. These stations will be right in the middle of local population centres. All the lines either running now , or planned , converge on Manchester City Centre, and also both main rail stations. In terms of integration . it will equal the London Underground. Whilst we havent got the exact detail of where the HS2 station will be in Manchester, as I have mentioned before, its highly likely to be an extension of Piccadilly where there is already unused capacity in the form of the old Mayfield station right next door. There are also other projects happening right now such as Crossrail. Thameslink, and the Northern Hub. Add in the electrification of the Great Western Line, and you can see that the cold hard facts are in your face……..our transport infrastructure is already getting substantial investment. In terms of HS2, the investment is spread over 20 years, in other words its business as usual.

    There is no proof that millions oppose HS2, indeed the responses to the consultation and stopHS2s own petition dont even reach the 100000 mark by some distance. It comes as no great suprise that those who benefit the most ( which are the conurbations which are directly connected ) are in favour , and of course this is where the greatest concentrations of population are. I saw an interesting article about Old Oak Common the other day, the wolrd renowned architect Terry Farrells vision for the area which is now being presented to the DFT. Its a staggering plan which by all accounts almost creates a city in itself. No less than 115000 new jobs are predicted.


    • Is that in addition to the million jobs claimed by Yes to HSR ??
      These are just figures plucked out of the air just like those in the business and economic cases

    • It says that a cross rail link to Heathrow is planned – journey time 11 minutes. Does this mean that a Hs2 link/spur will not be needed?

    • I say again that most journeys in this country are on short commuter routes which are getting more and more overcrowded and expensive, only this morning on the radio they are anticipating rail fare increases of 8% and above. This is where money should be invested not on a ‘flash’ new toy for the rich. Money is in short supply so it should be invested where benefit will be greatest for all. All figures quoted by HS2 and its supporters are assumptions and I never see anywhere how these assumptions are determined, perhaps they can’t or won’t tell us. Until they do the case for this railway will never stack up. Lets be an innovative country (instead of following the crowd 20 years too late) and instead of encouraging Business travel why don’t the Government set up state of the art virtual conferencing facilities that people can book.

    • I’ll give YOU a timely reminder about what all this is about Gary,
      At this point in time we do not have enough police to protect our citizen’s, our possessions and our property, and our Government intends to cut back their numbers.
      My wife who has developed an allergy is unable to see a specialist before January, our hospitals are in dire need of updating and expansion. My friend’s wife has major kidney problems and has to wait six weeks before they will insert a stent; and to cap it all son’s wife, who is German, insisted when they were on holiday in Germany last week that he saw her doctor because she has little faith in the competence of many GPs in this country. Examination, blood samples, and test results were all completed in a matter of days.
      I am not allowed to talk about the problems in the armed forces, but we are all aware of them. Yet you would rather spend money we don’t actually have, squandering it on a new railway line that will cater for a very small minority of our population, when all these other major issues are staring you in the face.
      Look after today Gary and tomorrow will look after itself.
      I will be the first to admit that having a brand new fast railway system would be nice, having a brand new fast car would be nice too, but we can’t afford it at this point in time and it is the height of irresponsibility to advocate such expense when we have far more pressing and needful expenditure that will take up all our resources for quite a few years to come.

    • The 72-year-old award-winner has been recruited by Hammersmith and Fulham Council to design plans for a major new interchange station as part of the government’s High Speed Rail (HS2) project”
      how much will it cost? whats the running total now when you add on this new interchange and the heathrow spur, .will this be before the manchester and leeds extensions? and from what the prohs2 guys say all of this will be funded out of private finance?
      I wonder if rbs and lloyds are interested

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