How will High Speed 2 help?

I’m writing this on the Far North Line, a place that is 12 hours from London, and has no need to be any closer to it.

It’s hard to define what you mean when you ask whether something helps — whether it is helpful to do something.  What I mean is, whose lives will be better when HS2 is running?  That question isn’t really any less ambiguous, is it?  What positive effect might HS2 have on our health, wealth, productivity, happiness, or any other measure that you think is worth maximising in life.

At AWWTM, we have noticed that having a calm, quiet, clean and beautiful built environment, designed for people and unspoilt by the noise, fumes, and general intimidatory and isolating presence of cars and trucks, seems to make a worthwhile contribution to all of the above measures.  We have observed that wasting years of your life in unpleasant transport conditions — whether a traffic jam or an overstuffed commuter train — tends to make a harmful contribution.  And we think that catastrophic climate change would also probably not be a good thing for our health, wealth, and happiness, and so avoiding causing that would be helpful.

So how will High Speed 2 help with these kinds of things?  I find it increasingly difficult to answer this question, which worries me, because my prejudice is that high speed rail must surely be helpful, and I instinctively like the idea of our having it.  And I just don’t want to be on the same side as a bunch of Tory nimbys.  It’s a railway, and railways are good things.

The government has been selling HS2 as a means to improve and save the environment while helping sustain economic growth.  Currently, many long-distance north-south travelers believe that the car or domestic flights are more suitable forms of transport for them than the train.  If only the train were a bit faster, for many more travelers, the balance would tip in favour of the train.  This would take cars off the road and planes out of the sky, cutting noise and air pollution, visual and physical destruction of our neighbourhoods, and greenhouse gas emissions.  It would help to achieve helpful things.

(As an aside, rail fares throughout the country have just gone up and the government are trying to justify this by pointing to the improvement programs that the fares will fund, including HS2.  But if HS2 is supposed to be to bring the benefits of rail travel to current car and plane users, shouldn’t they be funding it?  Say, with a tax on aviation fuel appropriate to the level of harm that burning it at altitude does?  This government does, after all, support the principle of people like students paying now for hypothetical future economic prosperity.)

Unfortunately, the government’s own current projections are actually that most HS2 users will be existing rail users merely going faster than before on brand new trains and track, which if true and if sustained, rather spoils the greenhouse gas and road congestion arguments anyway.  (I’m not actually convinced this would remain true though: the first users will indeed come from conventional rail, but if HS2 demonstrates sufficient benefits for car and plane users, over time many people who are currently invested in car and plane based lifestyles will adapt to it.  Just as when the first motorways opened they were used only by existing car owners for car journeys that would otherwise would have been made on convention roads — but over time, they filled up as people adapted their lifestyles and built environment to the motorway world, buying more cars and making more journeys.)

A better case for HS2 seems to be in relieving conventional rail congestion.  We are told that the West Coast Main Line is full.  (Virgin Trains have just this week been allowed to run one extra friday evening train per day to Manchester, but perhaps this is at the expense of a freight or stock slot?)  This means we have overcrowding on the existing WCML intercity and regional trains (though many of these can at least be lengthened as a short-term solution), which will only get worse as passenger numbers continue to grow.  And at a time when we need to be investing in the infrastructure for switching freight from road to rail, road freight is growing and rail freight stagnating, because there is insufficient capacity even for loads that are perfectly suited to the existing rail freight infrastructure.  (Several of you are now thinking to yourselves, “isn’t this WCML argument rather reminiscent of predict-and-provide, and hasn’t predict-and-provide had miserable consequences when applied to road building?”  I’m going to ignore you for this post, but we can discuss it later.)

So I guess HS2 will help: without it, the lack of available WCML capacity is driving people into their cars and freight onto the roads, and is holding back development of better rail freight infrastructure.  But is it the most helpful thing we could be doing with the money?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that most journeys in the UK are not inter-city journeys.  Most journeys are short — within a city, or, between nearby towns and villages for shopping, services, socialising and employment.  Most people easily go for months without leaving a 50 mile radius of their house; long-distance journeys are an occasional luxury, for holidays.  But it is these local journeys, though short, which tend to cause more problems per mile — because they are in our town centres and residential neighbourhoods rather than on the motorway.  And these are the journeys that are ignored by the government as something uninteresting that the district council can deal with as they see fit.

Local councils never do deal with transport issues as they see fit.  They deal with them as best as they can afford, and (biggest, densest cities aside) local councils can only afford roads, and even then, only roads that they can build bit-by-bit over the course of a decade.  Somerset and Dorset yearn for their railway to return.  Portishead desperately needs just three miles of track laid on an existing clear trackbed.  Scotland and Wales, where the railways were really hacked to pieces, and London, are leading the way in actually rebuilding these railway lines that people want for their simple short and medium-distance everyday journeys.  But Scotland, Wales, and London all have their own big-budget regional governments to help do this.  Everywhere else has little uncooperative local councils who don’t have the resources to do things like rebuild branch lines.

Spending tens of billions of pounds on getting these sorts of projects going — reconnecting those towns of over 10,000 population which were kicked off the railways; and bringing back the little lines that each connected dozens of villages to the market and county towns where the jobs and services are — would ultimately affect a great many more people than HS2, and I suspect it would have many more positive knock-on effects on development patterns and a far more profound effect on people’s health, wealth, productivity and happiness, than would increasing the top speed of a few intercity trains from 125 to 200 mph.

Of course, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do both.  They would still cost less than a bank bailout.  We could privatise the motorways to pay for it.

8 thoughts on “How will High Speed 2 help?”

  1. I can’t help thinking HS2 – as it stands now – would only be of massive benefit if it was plugged into HS1 and allowed through journeys to the continent.

  2. Interesting paper on the environment and HS2 is available on the below
    link. The paper was written for Railfuture. According to this report, there appears to be a problem with switching road freight onto existing railways. ” a new international standard container 9’6″ has been introduced, but most of Britain’s railways do hot have a large enough loading gauge (technically termed W10) to carry them efficiently. Further capital investment is needed to enlarge to W10 loading gauge a nationwide core network of strategic freight routes that Network Rail identifies as essential to attract 9’6″ container freight away from roads.”

    Click to access HighSpeedRailEnvironment_HJaeger_6_pages_5_Jan-2011.pdf

  3. The negative side of the new railway line is that it cuts through the countryside like a modern iron curtain. Humans and wildlife alike will find it hard to cross this line, except at a relatively few crossing points. Many pleasant evenings and weekends on footpaths, bridleways and just walking the fields will be lost.

  4. +1 to Darryl.
    Mark, the effects really are not that bad, the TGV in France has specially designed tunnels and bridges to allow wildlife/pedestrian/horse passage.
    I would be more questioning whether high-speed rail is really efficient for the UK, it is quite a small country. Links would be only to London, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow and maybe Edinburgh (sorry if I’ve another big city!). But these cities are relatively close to each other, so by the time the HS train has reached it max speed it has to slow down again, reminiscent of aeroplanes that have barely taken off that they come down again. The Pendolino-type trains are probably more money-efficient for a country of this scale. The biggest issue I see is cost, I used to travel between Scotland and London quite a bit, but would often take the plane or drive because the train is too expensive. The car in particular is quite economical if you have 1 or more passengers, but there are no discounts for people booking several seats on a train. Again in France (my home country) if you book for a couple or family you get discounts, up to 50% if memory serves well.
    I believe the only reason the gov is pushing HS is because huge contracts to big companies allow for kickbacks/jobs for friends.

    1. Electric traction hits 300km/hr quite a bit faster than diesel can do ~ the constraint is not the length of distances between stops, but the curve radius of the corridor. For diesel traction on legacy rail corridors, the 200km/hr speed limit makes sense, but improve the curve radii and gain the superior acceleration of the electric traction and 300km/hr makes ample sense.

      That is, of course, only North-South: it would be insanity to purse a free-standing Express HSR network for an island the size of Britain. Rather, for the size of Britain, the ideal system would be an Express HSR north-south trunk, with junctions onto an electrified 200km/hr mainline network, with junctions in turn onto 175km/hr regional branch line networks. Just as in France, there is no need to have the trunk HSR corridor run to each origin/destination in order for the Express HSR system to serve them, and the infrastructure upgrades that allow the Express HSR to run onto the 200km/hr mainline network are also useful upgrades for local and intercity services that are focused on that network.

      As far as money, that is a self-imposed constraint, and so it just a different way of saying that the political powers that be have not decided to do it. As far as real, physical, constraints, if there are labor and equipment resources, and the new transport systems reduce the material impact of alternative means of providing the transport, there is no “hard” resource constraint on pursuing local, regional and inter-regional rail transport side by side.

  5. darryl – absolutely hs1 and hs2 must be linked from day 1 as a full speed twin track connection allowing not only international trains but also serives from the north to kent. those wanting to change to eurostar or travelling to docklands etc cand do so at stratford /ebbsfleet etc
    en125 – the larger containers are cleared on most of the wcml. they can be carried on small wheeled rail wagons. ipswich-nuneaton-southampton is currently being upgraded. a new freight railway was built from rotterdam to germany a few years ago
    mark – i dont think it will be an iron curtain and other areas have been less spoilt by the railway then the motorway
    nico – so hs2 is only going to connect the largest population centres, isnt that economically sensible. an electric trains such as your tgv accelerate quite quickly. in any case the main reason for hs2 is capacity the speed is only an additional benefit or tool to achieving that capacity.

    i also believe that the east west line needs to be reopened as an electrified double track railway which would allow access via hs2 to oxford and the chilterns in one direction and milton keynes in the other

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