High Speed 2 (HS2), the controversial planned high speed railway which will link London, Birmingham and the north west of England has taken a major step forward this week as Members of Parliament have approved legislation allowing funding for the next stage.
Phase 1 of HS2 will run from London to Birmingham, with a small spur to Heathrow Airport. Phase 2 is proposed to split from Birmingham and run to Manchester on one branch, and Sheffield to Leeds on the second branch. The first on-site works are due to start in 2017 with the first train running on phase 1 between London and Birmingham by 2026, and phase 2 by 2033.
The idea behind HS2 is simple. Encourage more people to take the train on fast, dedicated, integrated high speed rail services linking key city centres. This will generate investment opportunities in disadvantaged areas, create jobs, open up the Northwest to economic growth and link more closely to the Southeast of England and mainland Europe. Regional competition within Europe is strong, and any opportunity to open up an area to investment is welcome.
The existing West Coast Mainline (WCML) is the current “high speed” line linking London, Birmingham, and the Northwest, and continues to see overcrowding, reliability issues and the sharing of the infrastructure with local and freight traffic on what is basically a route of Victorian origin. Despite recent huge investments into the WCML to improve the reliability, the long term outlook will still require investment with continuous engineering closures, upgrades and disruption just to keep it operational, yet alone running more efficiently with increased speed and capacity.
Perhaps alarming for the tax payer is that the estimated cost of the entire HS2 project has recently increased to £43.6bn (€51.6bn), while the estimated benefit-cost ratio of the route have been reduced for every pound spent. In other words, the business case for the project becomes less attractive in terms of the benefits which will be achieved in the long term. The estimation that the current London to Birmingham journey time of 1 hour and 21 minutes could be reduced by only 32 minutes to 49 minutes in 2026 also makes many people question the need for this new link.
By 2026, the need to travel by fast high speed train may not be as necessary as we think it will be. It is always difficult to forecast future passenger numbers and demand on the railways, as historical figures will not provide accurate predictions of future use as information technology has significantly changed the way we do business and live our lives over recent years. By 2026 the need for fast rail transportation may be superseded altogether by the ever increasing internet speeds and innovations in technology development. The idea of travelling for face to face meetings and work as we know them today may not be the same. Also, the demographics of the UK mean that a relatively small amount of people will benefit directly from this high speed link to the Midlands and Northwest.
HS2 is receiving an extraordinary amount of media coverage due to the rising cost, diminishing benefits, environmental concerns and the likely destruction of beautiful countryside, communities and homes along the route. In a country as densely populated as England, the process of designing and building such a high speed rail link will always be slow, controversial and above all expensive. Take HS1 for example. This purpose built, 108km high speed route linking London to the Channel Tunnel which then connects onward to France and Belgium was completely opened for rail services some 13 years after the Channel Tunnel was completed. HS1 was a complex project, with significant financial issues and a number of restructuring and refinancing measures put in place to ensure the project was an eventual success. The choice of route itself was also controversial, as environmental considerations, archaeological investigations and resident’s protests meant a number of route options and public enquiries took place over a number of years.
Many would argue that the £43bn investment for HS2 could be spent in a more creative manner across the country, and bring significantly greater benefit, jobs and development to many more regions and people every day, much sooner. HS2 will be complex to structure, finance and build, and the current Government support does not necessarily mean future Government support.
Many would argue that high speed rail connections are vital to the economy, just like HS1 has become vital for the England to mainland Europe corridor, which has no doubt benefitted over the years from A high speed rail link.
But for certain, HS2 will continue to receive many headlines, many opinions and many arguments for and against. Only time will tell if all the debate and controversy was worth it.