High Speed 2

The country is becoming increasingly exercised about the proposed high speed railway line that will link London to Birmingham in 45 minutes. In due course it would also see journey times to the north and Scotland cut and provide the backbone to a British high speed rail network. What’s not to like?

By rights I should be heartily in favour of High Speed 2 (HS2), the name given for this new high speed railway line. It would cut the journey time to see family and bring to this country the sort of rail travel I’ve experienced in Germany and Japan. However I find my enthusiasm muted at best and at worst I’m opposed to the plans altogether.

I’m not a NIMBY, the route will not run within sight or earshot of where I live, however it will run through the Chilterns and impact many of our favourite towns, villages, countryside and walks. Furthermore, I question the absolute necessity for the route that is trying to be sold to us. Are there really no alternatives to this massive financial outlay and substantial environment impact?

Losing the peace

As a nation, there’s a good many of us who are intent on finding a peaceful corner to call home. While some are happy in the noisy bustle of the urban jungle, many others are keen for life away from it. While transport is vital, it needs to be measured and balanced with maintaining a healthy national environment; if the land is utterly criss-crossed with noisy trunk routes then there’ll be no respite from the noise. If HS2 were to closely follow existing motorway routes, as the West Coast Mainline does, then I don’t think I’d have such concerns, however much of the route cuts a swathe through some of Britain’s finest countryside. Valleys unspoilt and at peace with the sounds of their natural environment threaten being ruined with the sight of another huge concrete construction, accompanied by the intense noise of high speed trains passing every few minutes. The limited tranquility of this island will be encroached upon further, a development I cannot welcome.

City slickers

Perhaps the building of the HS2 would be more palatable to those living on the route if they benefited from the line, however no intermediate stations are planned between London and Birmingham. The line skirts by the large town of Aylesbury, currently an hour’s commute from London on a slow and overcrowded line. With no intermediate station, we’ll be in the bizarre situation where passengers in Birmingham are able to reach London more quickly than those living much nearer the city. The HS1 line serves communities on its route, but the HS2 has no plans to do so. Of course, capacity can be maximised with a simple non-stopping route, however in its present form only the residents of the two big cities are served. Yet there’s not exactly a shortage of travel options between England’s first and second cities.

Indeed, both Virgin and Chiltern Railways operate regular services between London and Birmingham. Virgin will see longer trains brought into service in the next few years, while Chiltern typically operate 4-car diesel trains on the Birmingham route, leaving ample scope for expanding capacity with longer train sets and electrification. The HS2 is essentially replicating a route that’s already well-served and which has still a number of capacity increase options available on existing lines.

To my mind it’s the route between Scotland and London that would most benefit business by reduced journey times, which are currently around the 5-hour mark by rail. Bringing Glasgow, Edinburgh and London within easy reach of each other could open up Scottish companies as being feasible suppliers for London’s commerce. There would also be a much clearly case here for the reduction of CO2 producing domestic flights between these cities; something speed improvements with Birmingham would not achieve.

Stretching the infrastructure

Indeed, the proposed Birmingham – London route would provide a relatively modest time improvement in the grand scheme of things, offering a journey time of 45 minutes compared to the 62 – 75 minutes available on the West Coast Main Line today. Considering that HS2 journeys would likely come with a higher ticket price attached, the new service would by no means offer an overwhelming case to attract customers.

One thing that the HS2 may do with an sub-hour journey time, however, is attract commuters to London from Birmingham and the surrounding area, and this in turn causes me concern. The London terminus for HS2 is Euston, an already crowded station dealing with a high volume of intercity, inter-regional and suburban trains. From Euston, the Underground station offers the main source of onward journeys around the capital, however the design of this station is old, inefficient, with several bottlenecks for passenger flow. I simply can’t see how the many hundreds of additional passengers brought by each high capacity train can be handled with the existing infrastructure.

There’s potential bad news for existing users of Euston station too, who will see considerable disruption as the station is redeveloped and also possibly lead to reduction in the number of platforms available for the existing services. Adding capacity is something but having to reduce capacity elsewhere as a consequence at such a busy station surely limits and brings into question the benefit. I can’t see that existing Underground lines serving Euston can be significantly upgraded, so the plan is presumably for further overcrowding; a simply unacceptable option.

All-in-all

There is, therefore, much that makes me question the necessity and impact of the HS2 plan. Yet, greatest of all is the huge £14 bn price-tag that underlies the HS2 project; a cost that seems all but ludicrous at a time when core public services are being marked for closure and cuts and taking place the country-over. I of course understand the potential benefit the line may bring, however the dismal failure of HS1 and a trend for overly-optimistic growth in new lines does little to give me confidence that HS2 will in the long-term deliver an economic benefit above and beyond the construction and operational costs. There’s even the additional factor of remote working, which between now and the line’s projected opening in 2025 will likely have a considerable impact on transport trends, but this is something that is yet to be well understand or considered. Taking all this into account, I’d want to see a much more compelling and definitive case for HS2 before I’d be willing to give it my support. I wonder if many others are reaching a similar conclusion?

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