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HS2: Use it or lose it

6 January 2014

Any major project has downsides as well as advantages, but with the proposed new North-South railway, do the efforts of pro-rail detractors of the project, coupled with the opposition of nimbies, risk collapsing this major investment in our railways?


With large sections of the media increasingly characterising the project as ‘spending billions to get to Birmingham a few minutes faster’, the building of Britain’s first major new railway for a century is by no means a certainty. Despite a choice of name that prioritised the line’s speed, this is a route which will connect 8 of the UK’s 10 largest cities and add much-needed capacity to the rail network.

In addition to those impacted by the route selected, the forces opposing HS2 range from groups hostile to any large public investment, such as the TaxPayers’ Alliance and Institute of Economic Affairs, to supporters of incremental capacity upgrades and myriad local transport projects. Some enthusiasts for other rail schemes or modifications to HS2 risk making ‘perfection the enemy of the good’, helping collapse HS2 with no guarantee the Treasury will then hand over the billions ‘saved’ to their favoured schemes. It is important to be clear that the HS2 spending allocation does not ‘belong’ to the Department for Transport. If HS2 is scrapped, the funding goes with it. It would then be up to the Department, the rail industry, local government and others to fight for a new allocation of billions of pounds against the competing demands of health, education and all other government spending.

Growth and capacity

The last decade has seen a huge growth in rail travel – up by 50 per cent to 1.46 billion journeys a year. The fastest growth rate has been amongst long-distance journeys. By just 2020 there will be a demand for a further 400 million journeys.

The West Coast Main Line is already the busiest mixed passenger and freight railway in Europe. Despite the £9 billion decade-long upgrade, capacity constraints are already preventing new services being introduced. Last year the Rail Regulator turned down Virgin’s application to run two new services from London to Blackpool and Shrewsbury. With the number of existing train paths close to the line’s capacity, punctuality is already suffering. New services are now only likely to come at the expense of cutting trains to other destinations. Is this the future we aspire to?

Some have suggested wringing the very last pieces of passenger capacity from the existing lines, laying parallel tracks, building grade separated junctions, lengthening trains and other measures. A recent report by Atkins costed a range of packages at between £16bn and £19bn – cheaper than HS2 but requiring 2,770 weekend’s worth of closures spread over a period of up to 14 years and delivering only modest journey time improvements.

The new North-South line of HS2 would deliver an initial capacity of 14 trains per hour, rising to 18 trains an hour once the second phase is complete. As this would be additional capacity, this will also create space for at least an extra 20 freight paths a day on the West Coast Main Line, which already handles 40 per cent of all national rail freight. Whilst journey time is not critical for all passengers, many of the savings HS2 would bring are significant enough that they will greatly alter people’s perceptions of what journeys are reasonable to make. The new line would bring two thirds of the UK’s population within two hours of London and transform the journey time between many cities, for example cutting London to Manchester from two hours eight minutes to one hour eight minutes.


Cost and comparisons

Significant improvements in infrastructure rarely come cheap. The Intercity Express Programme for new rolling stock on existing lines is valued at £5.7bn. The upgrade to the West Coast Main Line came in at £9.5bn. The core costs for building both phases of HS2 are expected to be £28bn. A healthy contingency has been added on top of this and rolling stock will need to be purchased. For comparison, the cleanup costs of the Sellafield nuclear site are currently estimated at £70bn. (see table above)

Some pressure groups have sought to produce ever more inflated figures for the ‘true’ cost of HS2. In the ‘analysis’ carried out by one Thatcherite think-tank, the whole cost of Crossrail 2, extra high speed spurs, tramway extensions in multiple cities and regional electrification schemes were all included in their headline-grabbing total.

Costs have increased since the project was first announced, with a major driver of this being costly modifications called for by those living along the route. An additional 14 miles of tunnel or green tunnels have been added on top of those initially planned, meaning more than half the route to Birmingham will be in cuttings or tunnels.


Costs of a new North-South railway
Phase 1 (140 miles) £15.6bn
Phase 2 (190 miles) £12.5bn
Contingency Phase 1 (not intended to be spent) £5.8bn
Contingency Phase 2 (not intended to be spent) £8.7bn

Core spending

Core costs + contingency £42.6bn

Rolling stock


Robbing Peter to pay Paul?

It has been claimed that HS2 is so vast in its scale that it will hoover up almost all transport funding for a generation. After a recent investigation, the cross-party House of Commons Transport Select Committee concluded, “There is little evidence to suggest that the Government will squeeze transport spending in other areas to channel money into HS2. If anything the opposite is happening in the rest of this decade, with several major rail projects beginning and steps being taken to provide more predictable funding for roads.” Given the construction project will span 15 years, spending will average in the region of £2bn per year, broadly equivalent to that currently being expended on Crossrail.

The creation of a major new domestic rail line – something which has not occurred for over a century – hangs in the balance. Britain can continue with a ‘make do and mend’ approach, or adopt the step-change in speed and capacity which a new high speed line will bring. Many questions remain to be settled – from the phasing of the build to the ownership and pricing of services – but overall this is a project that deserves our strong support.

• A new union-led initiative in support of the new North-South railway will be announced shortly.

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