Earlier this month, work officially (in reality, preparatory work has been going on for some time now, particularly around the new London and Birmingham stations) started on building High Speed 2 (HS2), a new railway line connecting London, Birmingham and Manchester/Leeds.
There has been a huge debate as to whether HS2 is worthwhile, or whether the money spent could be better used upgrading ‘classic’ routes. In this article, I’m going to unpick some of the main arguments, and explain why I believe HS2 is an essential addition to the UK’s rail network.
The story so far…
HS2 was first officially proposed in 2009, as a way of relieving the congested West Coast Main Line running between London, Birmingham and Glasgow. Passenger usage on the line had grown 50% since the start of the decade, and even at that point there were limited opportunities to increase capacity on the line further (though Virgin did introduce longer 11-car Pendolino trains over the next couple of years).
An initial plan for a ‘Y-shaped’ route from Euston to Manchester and Leeds was published in 2010 – and right from the start was split into two phases; Phase 1 (which I’ll be focusing on in this article) runs between London and Birmingham, with an intermediate stop at Old Oak Common in West London (to provide an interchange with GWR services running out to Wales and the West Country, as well as connections with Crossrail and Heathrow Express) and a second at Birmingham Interchange in Solihull, which will provide an easy connection to Birmingham Airport and the NEC exhibition centre complex.
HS2 was given the go-ahead officially in 2012, but due to various legal challenges and wrangling with various parties affected by the new line, it was only in 2018 that contractors were appointed and preparatory works started at the two termini for Phase 1 – a new extension built on the side of London Euston and a brand new station in Birmingham at Curzon Street.
This brings us up to date – as of September 4th this year, work on construction outside of the terminal stations has now officially commenced… but the debate as to the benefits of the line rumbles on…
Before I go into detail as to why HS2 is such a good investment, it’s important to understand, at a high level, the main arguments against the line being built, and, importantly, what is being done to mitigate these primary concerns. They can be put into three main categories: Compulsory purchase of property, Environment and Cost.
Objection 1: Compulsory Purchase
According to figures obtained from a Freedom of Information request, around 900 homes have been compulsory-purchased by HS2 along the route, causing disruption to hundreds of families who are now being forced to move out of their homes and find housing elsewhere.
However, compulsory purchase is an unavoidable part of any major infrastructure project, and there are schemes available which are based on an established mechanism for ensuring homeowners get a fair value for their property, plus assistance with moving elsewhere. There’s also a scheme available for those living near the route who are struggling to sell at their property’s pre-HS2 market value.
Objection 2: Cost
The estimated costs for HS2’s Phase 1 was around £19 billion in 2013 (the earliest date that estimates split down by phase were available) – with the whole project budget at that time estimated to cost £43bn. The latest official estimate is between £65 billion and £88 billion, with some estimates that it may even rise to around £100 billion – if you assume the Phase 1 and Phase 2 costs are still roughly proportional to what they were in 2013 (44% Phase 1, 56% Phase 2), and adjusting for inflation, that would mean a rough doubling in costs for Phase 1 now vs 2013, and some would argue that, particularly at the current time, this money could be better spent elsewhere when you consider the drop in passenger numbers on the rail network due to the current pandemic.
However, the best way to think about HS2 is as a long-term investment. Most analysts within the rail industry believe that a pessimistic estimate would be passenger numbers recovering to around 80% of pre-pandemic levels (the balance of journeys within the working day might change, but that’s outwith the scope of this article!) within a year or two, and continuing to grow roughly at the same rate as before thereafter, so the additional capacity (more on that later) is still needed.
It’s also worth taking into account how Government capital expenditure works – borrowing to improve national infrastructure is, generally speaking, a good thing, even if it takes decades to get a financial return.
Objection 3: Environment
This one is perhaps the one that needs the most unpicking – as there’s a lot of speculation online about the environmental impact of the project, with a large amount of it not being true.
First of all, there’s claims about ancient woodland being destroyed, and whilst it’s true that the route does (unavoidably) run through some areas of scientific interest, this has been kept to an absolute minimum.
Gareth Dennis at Permanent Rail Engineering has done a fantastic Twitter analysis of this, and rather than just type out what he said in my own words, have a read of this:
(the full thread is also worth a look at – particularly if you’re thinking ‘why not just introduce more curves and work around these areas?’)
The CO2 impact is another common complaint of the project – as recently as February this year, the Government apparently admitted (though I’m unable to find a direct source for this) that the HS2 project wouldn’t be carbon neutral within the line’s estimated 120 year lifespan based on its own projections. However, it’s not quite that straightforward, as this Tweet from pro-HS2 Green Party members goes on to explain (click to expand and read the whole thread):
Finally for this section, it should be noted that the HS2 project as a whole is also doing a great deal to directly mitigate against the environmental impact of the route – such as funding 65 hectares of new tree planting to partially counteract those that are being removed as a necessary part of the construction process – which shows an overall commitment to minimise the environmental impact.
Now I’ve given an overview of the reasons why HS2 is attracting controversy, let me set out the two primary reasons why, despite those criticisms (and taking into account the mitigations for these I discuss above), I think the new route is very much needed.
Benefit 1: Reduced journey times
Even the fastest services between London and Birmingham currently take around 1 hour 20 minutes, and calls at several other stations en-route.
HS2 will save roughly half an hour on end-to-end journeys between London and Birmingham, taking around 50 minutes. It will also significantly cut journey times to connect to Heathrow from the Midlands via Old Oak Common, as well as make Birmingham Airport a far more viable option for London-bound travellers, with Birmingham Interchange station (connected via a people-mover to the terminal building) less than 40 minutes away from central London.
It could even bring possible future connection opportunities between Birmingham and Heathrow airports, bringing the total journey time between the two down to about an hour (it’s currently double that time, and involves connecting via London Underground between Euston Square and Paddington, not the most luggage-friendly route!).
Benefit 2: Capacity on the WCML
For me, this is the big one – a report by the Office of Rail and Road published in February this year on the West Coast Main Line’s capacity said this:
There is no available capacity without significantly impacting performance and causing a reduction in timetable resilience due to the resulting requirement for successive services to run on minimum headway.West Coast Main Line Capacity Assessment 2020 (ORR)
Essentially, this means that before Coronavirus impacted demand, the WCML was running at full capacity, and at the time peak services on both Avanti West Coast and London Northwestern Railway were frequently full and standing on the southern section of the route (broadly south of Rugby, and a lot of these services were 11/12 car, the maximum length of train that platforms along the route are available to accommodate. Also, linking in to the reduced journey times above, this means that it’s impossible to add in additional direct London-Birmingham services on the existing network.
This is a key point that I feel a lot of analysts miss. By taking long-distance passengers away from the WCML’s southern section (whilst HS2’s undoubtedly going to release a level of suppressed demand for travel between England’s two largest cities and beyond, most forecasts – including this report – suggest this is only in the region of 20% compared to the total predicted demand), HS2 Phase 1 will not only provide additional capacity between London and Birmingham (and Phase 2 to stations further north also), but it will also take demand for longer distance passengers away from the classic route network at the same time, meaning that the regional passenger and freight operations on the WCML will also directly benefit.
Punctuality should improve on the WCML too – by definition, a route running at near-100% capacity struggles when even a small percentage of services are running behind schedule.
Just to emphasise here, HS2 Phase 1 is likely to be in operation no earlier than 2028. By the time the line opens, the reduced demand caused by the pandemic is likely to be a distant memory, and whilst patterns may have changed to be less ‘peak-heavy’, it’s widely expected (including by over 80% of respondents to this recent poll) that overall passenger demand will recover to 2019 levels within the next couple of years.
As well as the two primary benefits mentioned above, there are also other benefits which are perhaps more difficult to quantify (and some of these will only be fully realised once the full Y-shaped route is open), but are nonetheless worth mentioning briefly here (I’ve deliberately not expanded on these as they’re out-of-scope for this high-level overview as to the main benefits, but happy to go into more detail on any of these, just leave a comment below with your question!). These include:
- Reduced HGV traffic on the road network due to the increased rail freight capacity
- Reduction in domestic air travel on Anglo-Scottish routes
- Improved connectivity between the West Country and the rest of the UK (I touched on this in the intro, but it’s worth mentioning here again)
- Improved connectivity between Birmingham and Heathrow for long-haul connections (and ultimately between Heathrow and Scotland, reducing the need for short haul connecting routes)
- Better value fares – whilst this is subject to finalisation, the current intention is for HS2 not to command a premium fare, unlike HS1, to actively encourage its use for longer distance travel. It may also open up some attractive offers on the existing route for regional journeys.
In my view, HS2 is very much a required piece of transport infrastructure and the commencement of the building work for Phase 1 is a positive sign that the first part of this national infrastructure project will successfully be seen through to completion. There are still hurdles to overcome with getting the second phase of the project off the ground, but we’ve hit an important milestone.
Whilst I do think some of the criticisms of how the HS2 project have handled e.g. the compulsory purchase of housing are valid, the overall benefit once this infrastructure is completed and in place is going to be genuinely transformational in terms of the UK’s long distance rail capacity. Additionally, I feel that there’s a lot of misinformation around the environmental impact; this video by Gareth Dennis – the Permanent Way engineer whose Tweet I quoted earlier – is just one (humourously-done!) example of this!
I hope this article has given you a good high-level overview of why I believe HS2 is a net positive for the UK overall, and as always, if you’ve got any views on this article, or any questions, please do pop them in the comments below!
If you want to have a further read around the HS2 project, you could do worse than the official site. Also, have a look at the full ORR capacity report for a more detailed analysis of, pre-pandemic, just how full the WCML can get, which is another reminder of why the additional capacity released by HS2 is urgently needed.
Featured Image: Birmingham Curzon Street construction site in 2018. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)