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.