14 November 2019

It’s time to get the debate back on track – the case for HS2

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Counterpoint: To read the case for scrapping HS2, click here

The problems that HS2 solves are far-reaching and complex and it is for this reason that many politicians and commentators have failed to make the case for the project.

The West Midlands has seen a 121% increase in rail use in the last decade and the intercity services that travel through the region on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) are at capacity. The intercity Virgin service has seen an increase of 10 million passengers since 2009, trebling the number of journeys when they were awarded the contract in 1997.

The growth of rail freight as well as regional and intercity passenger demand cannot continue ad infinitum, especially as they all share the same set of tracks. We desperately need greater capacity on our rail network. We need HS2.

Detractors believe the project is too limited, too expensive or too environmentally damaging and that there are other options available to achieve the same aims.

But while HS2 is an expensive and ambitious project it still delivers value for money and indirect benefits far beyond the grasp of a baseline cost-benefit analysis (which, while a decent rule of thumb are often based on questionable long-term assumptions).

And, looking at the alternatives it is clear that they are all either more expensive, more environmentally damaging or simply impossible. Some that have been proposed betray a fundamental misunderstanding about how the railway network works or simply do not seize the huge opportunity to create a truly national rail revolution that HS2 does. It’s time to get the debate back on track.

Capacity and Commuting

Superficially it may seem that a brand new, fast intercity network offers little relief for the average person whose daily commute is characterised by overcrowded, unreliable and infrequent local railway services.

When all the talk is of how HS2 will cut journey times from London, or how the trip from Nottingham to Birmingham – which currently takes an hour and 9 minutes – will be reduced to a mere 19 minutes, what HS2 has to do with getting from the commuter village of Marston Green to Birmingham New Street in the morning isn’t obvious. But it is key. That particular journey costs £3.80 one way, taking about 10 minutes to travel 7 miles, far pricier than an equivalent service on London’s underground and far less frequent. There’s only one train every 15 minutes from Marston Green into central Birmingham in the morning, which makes it one of the more frequent services in the West Midlands, but those trains will nearly always be rammed full.

If you can’t squeeze onto the 8.32am, while you’re waiting at the platform for the next one three Virgin intercity trains from London will whistle by, one at 8.34am, one at 8.38am and one at 8.46am.

Fast intercity services like these share the same tracks with freight and local services. They all travel at different speeds and stop at different stations making timetabling far trickier than, for example, the London Underground. Faster trains can’t overtake slower ones so a bigger timetabling gap is needed between them to prevent them from catching up with one another. The mix reduces the possible frequency for all types of services and when it comes to public transport, frequency is freedom. This system makes about as much sense as northern line commuters travelling from Clapham to Euston having to share a line with a more frequent service going to Edinburgh.

By moving intercity trains onto their own network and freeing up the capacity to run more local services HS2 fixes the capacity problem. It may seem paradoxical that spending money building a new, faster intercity line will enable commuter services within cities to significantly improve but it does exactly that, and far more cheaply and less disruptively than other options.

So it is wrong to claim – as many do – that we are spending a lot of money simply to shave half an hour off journey times from London to Birmingham.

This mischaracterisation suggests that the benefits of the project accrue only to a relatively small part of the UK, obscuring the fact that HS2 trains will serve over 25 stations. And although most of the construction will take place south of Manchester, HS2 trains will run north as far as Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow, connecting around 30 million people, almost half the population of the UK. And the transformative effect goes well beyond the immediate route. Midlands Connect estimate that of the 73 locations around the UK that could directly benefit from HS2’s released capacity, 54 are stations not actually served by HS2 trains.

The speed of HS2 is therefore a bonus rather than the main point. In that sense the project should have really been called ‘High Speed Too’.

Better Options?

But perhaps we could do all this another, better way? Critics have suggested that if the intention is to improve commuter services by increasing capacity, we should build a commuter line instead. The idea sounds a lot simpler but isn’t.

For a start where would you put it? The best place in the region for a commuter line is exactly where there already is one. The line runs through town and city centres which have all developed around it since the West Coast Main Line was formed in 1838. A new one would have to bypass the places where people actually commute from.

Another proposal is four tracking the WCML throughout the West Midlands. But if you think HS2 is too expensive and disruptive, this is not the option for you. Because the major population centres of the West Midlands developed along the Stafford – Birmingham – Rugby section of the line there are houses immediately adjacent to it over much of its length. Four tracking the WMCL would require turfing tens of thousands of ordinary people out of their homes so they can be demolished. This would be far more costly than building a new line through fields in the countryside. Between the tracks and the backs of the houses is a fairly extensive bank of mature trees that run along much of its length and which acts as crucial carbon scrubbing greenery. That would all have to go too.

Rail experts developed HS2 to address the problems that simply could not be solved by trying to upgrade the line further.

So if you accept the need to increase capacity and improve connectivity, HS2 really is your best option. But the benefits don’t end there:

The Environment

There were 22.8 million passengers on UK domestic flights in 2017. Creating a new high speed rail line is an opportunity to offer more viable and greener alternatives to such flights. It would help further reduce our carbon emissions, as well as freeing up capacity at Heathrow. By linking HS2 with HS1 you could even run services from as far away as Newcastle or Edinburgh to Paris and beyond (something not remotely possible with even the most feasible HS2 alternative).

A good example of how this can work comes from the continent, where airline company KLM have recently teamed up with NS Dutch Railways and French-Belgian high-speed operator Thalys to replace Europe’s most expensive flight (on a per-mile basis) with a cheaper rail service.

Because they are so slow, some regional rail routes are under-utilised. Between Leicester and Coventry for example, just 1% of journeys are made by train because it is just too slow and infrequent a service. Midlands Rail Hub plans take advantage of the HS2 capacity release to increase the speed, frequency and reliability of rail services between the Midlands’ economic centres, including Birmingham, Coventry, Leicester, Derby, Nottingham, Hereford and Worcester so we can get people out of their cars and onto trains to meet our carbon reduction targets.

HS2 will also free up space on the existing rail network for 144 extra freight trains per day, taking over 2.5 million extra lorries’ worth of cargo off the road and putting it onto the railway every year. Moving freight by rail uses 76% less carbon compared with the equivalent road movement. So HS2 will reduce the number of vehicles on the road, relieve congestion and make the air we breathe cleaner.

Local Control

Another exciting possibility that HS2 facilitates is a municipalised rail network distinct from a national one. Our high speed network will effectively be separate from our commuter network aside from where HS2 shares track via classic compatible routes on parts of the existing network.

This means that our commuter rail networks can actually better serve commuters who are travelling locally. We can abandon an outdated franchise model that follows the Victorian arrangement of lines branching out from London and instead place defined areas of our rail network in the control of combined authorities across the country.

In much the same way as TfL manages the overground, we can devolve control of our railway to the people that actually use it rather than being constrained by the ideological poles of privatisation and nationalisation. Freight organisation can be easily knitted into this model too. It may for now be a pipe-dream but one that is made possible by HS2 and yet another thing the alternatives entirely preclude.

But while these are rewards to be reaped from HS2 in the future, there are clear immediate benefits too – just look at Birmingham’s economy:

Boosting the Economy

The widespread narrative of a North/South divide has hidden the chronic under-investment in the Midlands’ infrastructure over recent decades. Until Birmingham’s one tram line was extended in 2016 the city was the largest in Europe without a mass transit system. That unwanted crown now passes to Leeds, whose leg of HS2 was rumoured to have been cancelled in favour of an NPR route to Manchester, a possibility described as a complete betrayal by business leaders in Leeds.

Retaining the spur to Leeds would enable the city to benefit from HS2’s connectivity packages, which make up a large amount of the project’s cost and are designed to slot HS2 into the UK’s existing network. HS2 is already part-funding several new tram extensions across the West Midlands, including one that will run through Dudley, the largest town in the UK without a railway station.

The agglomerated economic benefits to the West Midlands alone are far from small-fry; not only have 448 businesses in the region worked on the project so far but Deutsche Bank, HSBC UK and PwC have chosen either to relocate or expand their presence in Birmingham. Around the new Curzon Street Station in the city centre over 4,000 new homes and 36,000 jobs are being created while at the interchange station – near nationally significant assets such as the NEC, Birmingham Airport and Jaguar Land Rover – the Arden Cross development will support 70,000 jobs, 5,000 new homes and 775,000 square metres of commercial space. According to the Urban Growth Company, this one new ‘hub’ will contribute £6.2 billion to the economy every year.

The promise of HS2 is already paying dividends in Birmingham and the West Midlands, as it will across the UK. The project represents a true rail revolution whose step change in capacity will deliver transformative economic and environmental benefits across the country, as well as laying the ground work for future opportunities. A firm commitment from government to deliver the project in full will provide certainty at an uncertain time and spread prosperity beyond the M25.

By creating a better-connected network at a national and regional level we can bring our country closer together, when at times it seems to be falling apart.

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Jordan Quinlan is a Birmingham-based entrepreneur