10 Jan 2012

HS2: bonkers?

I've just been listening to Transport Minister Justine Greening announcing the go-ahead for HS2, the high speed line to connect London with Brum, Manchester and Leeds. She's sounded so upbeat, so full of promise. But every time I hear about this project, my own heart sinks. There have been hundreds of thousands of words expended on this subject already, mostly by people with a far better grasp on rail travel than me, but I feel like unloading my take on it. That's what a blog is for, isn't it?

Firstly the amount, widely reported as being around £33b, roughly three times the cost of the Olympics (don't get me started on that). Except there don't appear to be any sponsors or private investment. If it's that good a deal, why aren't private investors coming forward, like they did when the Victorians first put railways in place? Why is the government suddenly acting like a Soviet republic? Could it be that no one much cares about the few minutes shaved off journey times? No one wants the higher fares this will involve, and no business is daft enough to stump up?

And compare this to how stingy the government have been over Feed In Tariffs. As you may well have sussed by now, I'm no fan of FiTs, but the total subsidy is still small beer compared to HS2. Not to mention the fact that the government wasn't actually paying for FiTs - it is coming from everyones' electricity bills.

If the government were to replicate the same way of producing funds for HS2 as they have for FiTs, then the £33b could be spread amongst the 1.35billion passenger rail journeys made each year. If you added £1 to all of these journeys for the next 25 years, that would pay for HS2. Of course, only those travelling along the HS2 would benefit, but that's pretty much how FiTs are designed to work, so why not?

I'll tell you. Because the outcry would be so great that every right wing paper would have a fit of a very different variety — think stealth tax — and the plan would be dropped before you could say Justine Greening.

So no, instead the money is coming from the CapEx section of general expenditure, no doubt spread out over 50 years to make it look small. But it's a bollockingly large amount of money. It's £500 each. How many of us would elect to pay £500 for HS2 to be built? Now we have no choice.

What really browns me off is the point that I hear Christian Wolmar often making. That the rail network could badly do with a make-over and this £33b won't get spent on it because it's all going on HS2. To get from my home town, Cambridge, to Manchester by train takes 4hours. From London, 50 miles further away, Manchester is just 2hrs 10min, with a service running every 20 minutes.

Birmingham is worse still. 2 hours 40 mins from Cambridge by train — a distance of just 97 miles. In contrast, London is 118 miles distant but the journey takes just 1hr 25m. OK, Cambridge is a small town, but you could just as well substitute Bristol, Southampton, Cardiff, Swindon, Derby, you name it: the trains to them will all go at half speed or less than the London connections.

Our trains services always have been very London-centric and it seems absurd to me to be making them even more so. If we really want to get more people out of their cars and into a train, then how about improving cross country services?


  1. Alan ClarkeJanuary 18, 2012

    It's not just Cambridge - based in the SW I hardly see an electric train from one year to the next - just the occasional one stop trip on a spacious, smooth, London train from Lancaster to Preston, before changing onto a slow, crowded diesel.
    So I feel if that's how the other half travel - why do they need yet another electric line out of London? That £33bn is a lot of money that could do some good electrifying the network, reducing carbon emissions rather than increasing them by travelling at 250mph (HS2 indicate power rising from 4MW for std trains today to 20MW for HS2 design speed). Has no one noticed peak oil? Climate change?? Even if there is a case for a new line out of London, if it were designed for just TGV speeds it would be a whole lot cheaper to build, and to run - some people may even be able to afford the tickets!

  2. You mean HS2 is faster (more energy hungry) than TGV? Even tho our distances are so much smaller than Europe mainland's? Is this one-upmanship, or is Europe planning a HS2 network across virgin countryside that will make TGV, in its turn, redundant? In Europe, what's happened to the old mainlines superseded by TGV, anyway?

  3. Sorry - multiple typo fail, so I've re-posted:

    I'm all for trains, but I get your point - how many hundreds of small improvements could we get for the money. Improvements all across the country which would benefit everyone.

    I guess someone must be making a very convincing case for it, because it's hardly natural Tory ground. Unless they're using it as some kind of flag-ship investment/stimulus project, in which case if they spend more they will think they've succeeded!

  4. Fred,

    You are right. The point Justine Greening and her pals are making is that it's "HS2 or patch and mend." But we need patch and mend whether we have HS2 or not. Why improve one of the best parts of the existing network, when so much of the network is under performing and under invested?

  5. ^ Absolutely.

    Why spend all this money on a new line, that really is not needed. Put all the cash into improving existing services and lines.