‘Flawed and irresponsible’: why HS2 is a colossal error

1 Feb 2013 @ 10.01 am
| Opinion

The promotional video for HS2

York-based rail expert Jonathan Tyler argues that the £35 billion rail plan is a political vanity project which will deliver few improvements and cause untold damage

HS2 is being presented as a wonder-solution for alleged problems with the “classic” railway. Local authorities and business leaders in Yorkshire have got very excited about the proposals. They should look more closely.

HS2 is a politicians’ and engineers’ vanity project. It has not emerged from a careful analysis of a range of options for enhancing the railway system as demonstrably the optimal scheme on which to spend a lot of money.

The argument that the capacity of the trunk main lines will soon be exhausted is based on flawed data, hyper-optimistic forecasts of growth and a failure to understand the potential for improving the productivity of existing lines. In any case, the problem of overcrowding is largely limited to a few trains in peak periods and £35 billion is rather a lot of money to spend resolving that.

Committing so much money to a project that can bring no benefit for at least 12 years (and 20 years for phase 2 to Yorkshire) is bizarre and irresponsible at a time when the future is becoming ever more uncertain in the face of technological and environmental developments. Incremental change to the classic network (which could include some stretches of new line, eg to yield faster trans-Pennine times) would be infinitely wiser.

The engineering dream of the perfect railway has led to the concept of having very few stations on the high-speed network. This is no way to spread the benefits of a huge investment, especially since the connections between these stations and regional networks will be poor.

"Hyper-optimistic": the HS2
“Hyper-optimistic”: the HS2

Much has been made of the fast timings between principal centres. We should be wary. The comparison is between present mediocre timings and best-possible future times – it ignores the scope for (possibly dramatic) acceleration on existing lines. It also neglects the crucial matter of frequency. For example, the sketchy timetable shows two trains/hour from York to London, but only one each to Sheffield and Birmingham (passengers for places beyond, such as Bristol, may be left with a reduced service by the present route or an awkward interchange).

And many experienced railway people have profound doubts about the ability of the line to carry the number of trains which political expediency has pressured HS2 into offering. If it cannot it is likely to be the eastern leg of the “Y” whose proposed services are cut back, especially if multiple operators try to compete for the Manchester and Birmingham traffic.

There is something pathetic about northern politicians queuing up to welcome HS2 when no narrowing of the north-south divide can materialise for 20 years

The project is environmentally unacceptable. It cannot capture sufficient traffic from cars and planes to offset the high carbon-cost of building it and of running trains at high speed, while siting stations outside towns and promoting long-distance commuting are just what we should not be doing if we want a low-carbon economy. As for the damage to local environments, to natural capital and to people’s homes and livelihoods the project is simply not sufficiently beneficial to the nation to justify it.

Evidence that high-speed trains promote regional regeneration is extremely thin, and if anything they mostly benefit the major cities, especially capitals. There is something pathetic about northern politicians and business leaders queuing up to welcome HS2 when even on the optimistic view no narrowing of the north-south divide can materialise for 20 years – the problems are far too deep to wait that long.

Contrary to the impression the Government is giving HS2 is not a done deal. The plans have to pass a number of judicial tests, surmount powerful local opposition, go through a long and fraught process for Parliamentary approval and survive likely budget cuts. It may not happen.

Jonathan Tyler runs transport consultancy Passenger Transport Networks from his office in Stonegate. Jonathan has worked for the railway industry for nearly 50 years and is passionately committed to enhancing public transport.

He is a chartered member of the Institute of Logistics and Transport, a visiting research fellow at the Institute for Transport Studies in the University of Leeds and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Institute of Railway Studies and Transport History in the University of York.