Side Tracked: HS2 – Thoughts So Far

Bureaucracy and Time Frame

Here is a recent BBC article on the proposed HS2 project.

It uses words and phrases such as committee, required legislation, economy, tax payer and National Audit Office. The kind of vocab that rhymes with dull, red tape, and needless paperwork.

It seems that as the rest of Europe advances with upgrading and constructing high speed rail networks, Britain is being left behind whilst umming and ahing over whether this is a worth while venture and how many birds nests it may upset en route. Let’s for a moment disregard HS1 and for the sake of argument say that HS2 is Britain’s first high speed intercity rail link. I’d like to compare it with the construction of the first ever intercity railway in the early 19th Century – The Liverpool and Manchester railway.

Liverpool & Manchester Railway HS2
Year Proposed L&MR Company founded 1823 HS2 Company Limited founded 2009
Year Approved 1826 2015 (Estimated)
Proposed Length 35 Miles 119 Miles (To Birmingham)
Construction Starts 1826 2015 (Proposed)
Year Opened 1830 2026 (Proposed to Birmingham)
2033 (Proposed to Manchester
Build Time 4 Years 11 Years (Estimate to Birmingham)
+ 9 Years (Estimate to Manchester)
Total Time
(From Conception to Completion)
7 Years 27 Years (Estimate to Birmingham)
+ 9 Years (Estimate to Manchester)

So what have we learnt?

That somehow in just under 200 years of human progress it now takes us 20 years longer to complete a major infrastructure project. What an utter failure of modern bureaucracy.

Ok, so there are some things I should address that would seem to skew the data in favour of our Victorian cousins:

  • HS2 would be a hell of a lot longer. By a factor of about 3. But, saying this, even if you duplicated the Liverpool and Manchester Railway 3 times it still would have only taken a maximum of 12 years (1 year more than HS2) to build. That’s assuming the first 35 miles were finished and opened before any work on the next 35 had even begun, which in any project like this would have been unlikely.
  • The only opposition the Victorians would have had to worry about were wealthy land owners en route. They could likely be paid off with cash or the promise of stations serving their land. The everyday man would not have been considered if they needed to plough right through a working class housing estate. The environment wouldn’t have really been considered either. Rightly so, we should think about Jon Smith in rural Buckinghamshire and what his gerbils will say if we blast a 200mph train right through his front room, but it does rather spoil the development of a good railway.
  • Health and Safety was not a term the Victorians understood. There were no regulations, requirements and standards to adhere to. In fact William Huskisson, MP for Liverpool, died on the opening day because he was wandering about on the tracks…
  • HS2 will be run at a much, much faster speed. This will place restrictions on how the line is built, something the L&MR would not have had to worry about. It must be as flat and as straight as possible for example. Despite this you can’t forget that the L&MR was built nearly 200 years ago, without the aid of modern construction techniques and huge machinery and when nobody had ever built an intercity railway before.

Even factoring in the difference in technology, length, health and safety and opposition HS2 really shouldn’t be taking this long to build. If we got the Victorians to do it, we might have it open by 2016. We are being hampered by red tape, boring green types who don’t want to dislodge some badgers and a couple of home owners who don’t want it to spoil their garden. Surely the benefit of building it far out weighs the negatives both now and looking ahead to the future. Or does it?

Economic Benefits

Why do we think we need a high speed rail network?

  • We can go places faster. Time is money. Money is good for Britain. The theory is companies will invest in Birmingham because they can do business quicker with London.
  • Relieve congestion on the M1/M6/M40 and Existing West Coast Mainline.
  • To be greener and encourage people out of their cars and off short-haul airlines.
  • Because Europe has one and we want one too.

The economic benefit of the L&MR was absolutely clear. To transport people and goods in the 1830’s you would have either had to take it by Horse and Cart which would have taken the best part of a day and probably been dangerous. Highwayman and whatnot. The alternative waterways, not fully developed themselves would have not been much quicker and were fast becoming expensive. The inaugural journey on the 15th September 1830 took 4 hours. And this included a couple of minor derailments and the running over of William Huskisson’s leg. So in reality, on a good day it may have only taken 3. 3-4 hours seems like a long time to do 35 miles in todays standards but at the time this was astronomically quick, and much safer than the alternatives.

Same applies with HS2 right? Doing stuff faster is always going to beneficial. If we can get stuff to and from the capital quicker, more business can be done. Business is good. Time is money.

At the moment (Google suggests) it would take 125 minutes to drive from London Euston to Birmingham New Street. (Probably a bit longer than this what with traffic) And using the already existing rail network would take 90 minutes. HS2 promises to do this in 49 minutes. A reduction of 41 minutes. Figures vary on cost, but these on the actual HS2 Website seem fairly official: £21bn for Phase One (London – Birmingham). That works out at a staggering £512m for every minute reduced. Ah. That’s quite expensive. And that’s what our current politicians are struggling with. Is it really worth the immediate outlay of £21bn to save 41 minutes? If you look at it that way, No.

However, so far, I have deliberately isolated the ‘Phase One’ part of this project. It’s easy to say no, it’s not worth the cost, when you only look at Phase One in this way. After all, Europe’s High Speed rail shifts people between countries and over great distances, London to Birmingham – a mere 119 miles – seems small fry in comparison. But once you read onto chapter (Phase) Two things may start to make more sense:

  • The journey from London to Manchester is cut in half from 2 hrs to 1 hr. In comparison Driving would likely take 4 hrs, and with check-in waits and additional airport travel this would beat the equivalent flight.
  • A much more diverse set of destinations and their connections suddenly come on offer making it faster to travel around more of the UK (not just between London and the Midlands).
  • Heathrow, Birmingham and Manchester Airports all become linked.
  • The Northern Cities are then connected to HS1 in London and therefore the rest of Europe too.
  • The high speed infrastructure by 2033 is then in place to be expanded towards Scotland beyond this (or even before this) date.

The plot starts to unfold and suddenly everything makes a bit mores sense – We shouldn’t look at HS2 as one line, more the introduction of a completely new high speed network made up of lots of lines and lots of future lines. Without Phase One we won’t have all these benefits of Phase Two. So once Phase Two is built the economic gain is clear?

Well this article by KPMG (commissioned by HS2 Limited) suggests it would boost the economy by £15bn a year with Birmingham and the Midlands (at the heart of the high speed network) benefiting the most. It also explains at length that time saved (and speed) is not really as important as the extra seats gained and the reduction in congestions on both other national rail services and the road network. HS2 is not just a means to speed up travel but a method to increase capacity: With a bigger capacity there is more custom, labour and goods to choose from for businesses in The Midlands.

Robert Peston then points out that KPMG have assumed that a transport network at capacity is the only thing hampering businesses in the Midlands. Things like workforce skill and land price and availability are sort of… overlooked. Some also point out that there’s a good chance KPMG are right, a larger capacity will provide an increase in custom labour and goods… but for London and not Birmingham. Meaning The Midlands would actually miss out on business and further feed the economic black hole that is London – sucking all the growth out of the rest of the country.

I’ve also noticed another glaring assumption in both articles. Businesses may be keen to have their workforce and custom come from a wider catchment area, BUT, those of a manufacturing (yes we still do some of that in Britain) disposition can’t very well load their product onto a high speed train. They’d still be shipping stuff by road, (or at a push rail freight on the old network) – slowly.

What About The Alternatives?

There are clear positives and there are clear negatives. There are also some pretty clear unknown variables. Businesses in the north may benefit, people might leave the car at home, but most of these factors we can’t fully answer unless we actually go ahead and build it. Or, if we don’t build it. And if we don’t is there something we should do instead?

  • Upgrade the existing network. 51M are one of a number of organisations against HS2 and have drawn up proposals to better use the money to improve the current infrastructure. Most of these suggestions are hinged around running longer and more frequent trains between London and the North. A counter report by the Government implies that these ‘quick fix’ suggestions won’t be as beneficial in the long run than building a completely new line. They all seem to also ignore the sheer level of disruption they’d likely cause current services by the need to extend or build new platforms at Manchester Piccadilly & London Euston, grade separating a number of junctions and bypassing slow sections of the West Coast Main Line. The ‘more trains’ argument ekes to squeeze the most out of the capacity we already have, rather than increasing it for the future.
  • Improve Freight. Rail freight would have once been the only efficient way to move goods around the country. After a steady decline in the middle of the 20th Century, rail freight is once again on the rise in the UK. None of the alternative suggestions to HS2 address freight demand and what impact a heavier passenger service would have on the capacity for freight on our existing network. HS2 itself doesn’t address that businesses tend to also want to move STUFF about the country as well as people. Some of the money could be better used to improve and encourage businesses to use rail freight instead of HGV’s. (There’s even the possibility of high speed freight). Although as Network Rail clearly point out in this report, the actual act of building HS2 would free up freight capacity on the existing network anyway. This seems to be being forgotten when we try to decide if HS2 is of economic benefit.
  • Alternative destinations. As Robert Peston suggested, businesses also look for a skilled workforce when choosing their potential locations. Cambridge is a city with relatively bad transport links to the rest of the country but with a reputation for hosting high tech and innovative companies, often being known as Silicon Fen. Although the rail and road links to London are acceptable more could be done to improve transport links to the rest of the country to push more growth into the region. The Southwest and Wales also missed out of any high speed rail proposals could certainly gain from upgrades to The Great Western Mainline especially between London and Reading which suffers heavy overcrowding.
  • Improve the Road Network. “New-Motorway” may be somewhat of a dirty word but many of the internet’s road fanatics would have you believe there’s a good case the M11 should be extended northwards as an ‘East Coast’ alternative north/south route. It would arguably reduce congestion on the M1 and M6 – something HS2 intends to tackle. Although partially logical, this idea is quite unlikely given the fact the A1 pretty much does this job already. It’s also undergone recent upgrade work to grade separate most junctions so the improvements have already been done. The A1 also goes past nothing whatsoever for the majority of it’s route so this idea has relatively little scope in what it would offer the economy other than a tool to relieve congestion elsewhere. There are however much more sensible ideas such as improving the A14 corridor but these won’t solve any of our rail based needs.

Now I’m coming to the end of this article I need to wrap things up. I wanted to get to this point and say the reasons for building HS2 are absolutely clear and there’s no reason that all this bureaucracy should be holding it back. Except it’s not as black and white as the Liverpool & Manchester Railway where the argument for building it was absolutely clear. I’m starting to understand why there are so many for and against reports filling your heads with facts and figures. If we get this wrong then we end up with an overly congested network that hasn’t been brought up to speed with the rest of Europe…. OR… a huge white elephant that we as the tax payer have built. Remember the Liverpool & Manchester Railway was a private venture not being proposed by the government and not accountable to the taxpayer. Perhaps this answers why it was built so quickly! Maybe we should privatise…

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