HS2 is a proposed new railway line linking London Euston to Birmingham, and in the second phase – Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and eventually Scotland.
Supporters of high-speed rail argue it is necessary to meet the UK’s rapidly growing demand for travel. High-speed rail will provide the greenest, safest and most efficient form of transport. The investment will provide a major boost to business and the economy; the faster rail links will help reduce the north-south divide and overcome the externalities of car use.
Opponents of high-speed rail argue that it is primarily an unnecessary project that can’t be justified given the huge cost involved (£88bn in 2020 – much higher than initial estimate of £57bn) critics argue that there are much more pressing priorities such as small-scale road and rail projects which help to deal with smaller bottlenecks. Also, opponents are often motivated by the impact of the new railway on the environment.
Pros of High-Speed Rail
- The road system is becoming crowded with limited ability to keep increasing capacity. Offering high-speed rail will encourage more people to travel by train relieving gridlock in city centres. Therefore, it is not just rail travellers who will benefit, but those who gain from lower congestion on the roads.
- HS2 will free up capacity on the existing lines, enabling more local commuter services and more freight services – more freight trains will help take lorries off the road and provide environmental benefits.
- If extra capacity is not met by HS2 it could lead to large ticket prices on existing services to prevent overcrowding on peak services.
- Investment will provide jobs for those involved in building and running the new HS2
- Journey times from London to Birmingham will be less than one hour. There will also be quick rail links to Manchester and Leeds.
- Despite objections, HS1 has proved successful. Demand for HS1 rail travel to the Continent has proved to meet expectations; this has enabled more people to easily travel to Europe. A new service has created additional demand – not just taking from previous forms of transport
- The cost of HS2 will be spread out over 15-20 years. Therefore we can afford it.
- The £2-£3bn annual capital investment will help create jobs, stimulate economic activity and give a decent rate of return.
- As of January 2020, the project has already spent £9 billion on preparation (link). To cancel the project now, would mean this investment is lost. Industry figures claim scrapping project would cost as much as £12bn. (link)
- High-speed rail will take travel away from short distance air-travel, leaving a lower carbon footprint.
- The environmental impact will be mitigated by ‘green tunnels’ and planting of trees.
- Empirical results show that increased train frequency can have significant external benefits in terms of lower pollution, fewer road accidents and drops in infant mortality.
Figure 1. The environmental benefits of railroads: Effect of 10% increase in rail frequency
Source: VOX – Can railways curb traffic externalities?
- Trains have a better safety record than the roads. Passenger death rates (2008)
- By car 1.9 per billion Km
- By train 0.3 per billion Km
Cons of HS2
- There are other alternatives such as increasing train length on existing routes.
- HS2 may only benefit a small section of the population who use trains between major cities.
- Benefits of improved speed are debatable given that many people can now work on laptops away from the office.
- Environmental costs of building a new line through the Chilterns and Midlands. Residents are unhappy at impact on living standards and home values.
- In an era of austerity, spending on train service is not the highest priority. There is a high opportunity cost of spending on HS2 as the £88bn could be spent elsewhere (e.g. fixing potholes, reducing congestion on roads, decarbonising economy)
- Forecasts for passenger numbers are uncertain, there is no guarantee the demand will be there. In recent years, rail traffic growth has dipped. The scheme may not be finished until 2040.
- Rather than reduce the north-south divide, it may encourage people to live further away from London and use HS2 as a fast commute to London.
- The costs of HS2 continue to rise. Initially, in 2015, the project was forecast to cost £56bn but could now the total cost could soar to over £100bn. The higher cost is partly due to more expensive tunnelling to keep down noise to residents near the track. One report claims HS2 costs are out of control (BBC)
- There are cheaper and more effective ways to increase capacity, such as digital signalling, investment in local commuting routes. HS3 would link Manchester with Leeds and could be a better way to reinvigorate the northern economy.
- Rail-future a campaigning group for rail travel criticised the need for ultra high speed trains, there may be a bigger overall benefit from running slightly slower trains over different routes. Railfuture
- Although £8bn has been spent on preparation – this is a sunk cost – we shouldn’t go ahead with a bad scheme just because of sunk costs – which are spent no matter what choice we make. It is better to write off bad spending – than compound it and make it worse. (see sunk cost fallacy)
It is not often Britain attempts an ambitious investment project. The political system makes expensive, forward thinking investment projects unlikely to return much political capital. Elections aren’t won by promising improved transport links for the next decade. True, we like to grumble at the inadequate state of current transport links, but to actually invest the necessary money and time is another matter.
HS2 will cost approx £88 billion to build over 10 – 15 years, but its supporters claim it will generate a return on rail fares, economic growth, and knock-on benefits to consumers and local economies. There is an economic case for HS2 but there are also good economic cases for other infrastructure investment, which is less eye-catching but capable of delivering benefits in a different way.