More rail yes, HS2 maybe not

Submitted by AWL on 19 February, 2020 - 10:15 Author: Simon Nelson
HS2 cartoon

More railway lines? Yes. HS2 in particular? Not really.

There are higher priorities: electrification of the railways, many of which are still running diesel trains; increasing capacity on intercity services; improving existing connections; reinvestment in branch lines; newer trains.

A well-staffed and free or cheap integrated rail and bus network is the sort of large-scale infrastructure project that should come before HS2.

Some of the arguments used against HS2 are weak. But there is also good reason to question the arguments made for HS2 as a way to create good jobs, as a way to help the North, and as a green alternative to short-distance flights.

“Time to get on with building HS2”, was the headline on the GMB union’s website the day before Boris Johnson announced that the government planned to do just that.

By the time the whole project is complete the Financial Times estimates it could have cost £106bn. (1) The GMB champions the jobs that will be created during its construction as well as asking, “Ministers [to] concentrate on making HS2 a model of good employment practice while making sure our members can get on with building world class infrastructure in the Midlands and the North.” (2)

The GMB had presumably missed the fact that many of the companies that will be working on the project are former or current blacklisters. 11 firms were originally chosen to undertake the initial building work from July 2017, some of them joint ventures. One which included Carillion got well over ÂŁ1bn of contracts awarded, despite the government knowing that Carillion was on the verge of collapse. (3) The former head of the infrastructure division of Carillion is now the head of a joint venture of Vinci and Balfour Beatty which was awarded ÂŁ3.8bn in HS2 contracts. (4)

The trains themselves will be operated by a new franchise, the Westcoast Partnership, which will be responsible for the existing West Coast mainline intercity trains as well as the first phase of HS2. The previous government had already got three bidders who wanted to do it.

The ever-growing cost and the lack of oversight bothers some Tory MPs. One of the 2015 plans for HS2 included large swathes of property that would need to be purchased with no price given. Unforeseen delays or hiccups are likely to bring increases in cost, and for a project which on current estimates won’t have trains running on it until 2028.

Crossrail, a comparatively much smaller project and one much nearer completion, is already delayed by nearly three years.

Several newer Tory MPs are in opposition to HS2. Some of their concerns are reasonable.

Public transport is poor in the North, and outside London more generally. And HS2 won’t fix that.

HS2 will in the first instance only give a speedier non-stop journey between Birmingham and London. In the future it is due to have extensions to Leeds and Manchester. There is talk of a future high speed connection from Liverpool to Hull, the so-called Northern Powerhouse Rail. (5) Some see that as dependent on HS2, some as an alternative.

Connections by bus or local train services between outlying towns and major centres like Manchester and Leeds are poor, and employers in those areas, as well as working-class people, are aware of that. The nationalisation of Northern Rail shows the government knows the problem, too.

Trains are currently only 9 kph faster between cities in the North like Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool or Newcastle than road. 500,000 people commute over 30km every day to work in London. Only 250,000 people commute those distances to the Liverpool, Manchester, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Leeds and Sheffield city regions. Outlying areas of Greater Manchester and Merseyside have poor connections to the city centres.

Business people in towns like Warrington or Wakefield are increasingly concerned that people working in Liverpool or Leeds who have poor train services and overcrowded and continually cut bus services, and won’t or can’t commute by car (only 63% of people aged 20-29 today have learned to drive: it was 75% in 1994 (6)), will move to those cities and out of the outlying towns.

A report commissioned by the government and headed by Lord Oakervee, a former Chair of HS2, was always likely to favour continued construction. Supporters of HS2 argue that the new HS2 line will free capacity on existing lines to run more frequently-stopping services, and that it will shift journeys from air to rail.

Yet only a tiny proportion of journeys between London and Birmingham are by air, and not many between London and Manchester or Leeds. To replace internal flights, you need rail services from Birmingham and London to Exeter, and London to Aberdeen.

Constructing high-speed rail lines for relatively short trips (like London-Birmingham) and in a relatively small, densely-populated country has a different calculus from constructing them in France or China.

The environmental argument against HS2 is also weak: some ancient woodland will be destroyed, but it is a tiny percentage (0.001%) of Britain’s overall total, and no more than for the construction of just 14 miles of new motorway for the Lower Thames Crossing. (7)

“Ancient woodland” is woodland that has existed continuously since 1600. It subsists in patches dotted around Britain. No new railway line of any length or route could avoid some ancient woodland. HS2 promises to replace the woodland destroyed and to increase the number of trees after its completion. But a much smaller investment could reduce the journey time between Leeds and Hull from an hour to less than 40 minutes and run twice the number of trains.

The Financial Times believes that despite the growing cost, the long term benefits of HS2 are worth the risk. (8) The eastern extension of the Jubilee Line ran over budget, but is credited with facilitating over 100,000 new jobs in the London docklands, which had lost over 80,000 jobs in the 1960s. (9)

But really HS2 is focused on getting people to London quickly. As the dissenting voice, Lord Berkeley, said in the government’s report in HS2: “Getting to London is secondary for most people except for MPs and the managing directors of companies.” (10)

1) Britain’s green light for HS2 is worth the risks
2) Time to get on with building HS2
3) HS2 signed 1.3 bn Carillion contracts after profit warning…
4) Ex-Carillion boss to take over £2.5bn Balfour Beatty Vinci HS2 contracts…
5) Transport for the North
6) Are young people going cool on cars?
7) ”A remarkable achievement”: the environmental case for building HS2…
8) Britain’s green light for HS2 is worth the risks
9) HS2 will spark regeneration, say city leaders on the route…
10) HS2: parliament misled about true cost, says Labour peer…

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