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Public favour rail upgrades over HS2, says survey

New research suggests most people believe the £42.6bn cost of the High Speed 2 rail network should be spent on upgrading existing infrastructure.

The vast majority (74 per cent) of respondents to a poll commissioned by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) said they would never or rarely use HS2, and 58 per cent said the money would be better spent on the existing network – almost double the number of those who oppose the project outright.

Almost two-thirds (68 per cent) of respondents said they believed the UK’s rail network was worse than those in other Western European countries. But the IMechE said failing to build HS2 would lead to a continued worsening of the existing network compared to other countries, particularly through overcrowding, and that the government and industry needed to do a better job of communicating the benefits of the project.

‘This isn’t some sort of white elephant,’ the IMechE director of engineering Dr Colin Brown told The Engineer. ‘This will help capacity on the other parts of the network because it takes a lot of the [existing] high-speed passenger activity out.’

HS2 would also ensure the British rail industry maintained a skills base and a familiarity with the latest technology that would enable future capital projects and have a positive effect on the rest of the network, he added.

‘If we do not have a sequence of projects our infrastructure will stay stuck in the 1960s. If you go to China, they have an intrinsic belief that good infrastructure leads to good business.’

The government has claimed that taking intercity trains off the existing network onto the high-speed link between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds would increase Britain’s rail capacity by 143 per cent of volume, compared to 53 per cent for upgrade programme that would also require a substantial period of engineering works.

However, others have claimed that estimates for future passenger growth have been exaggerated and that other smaller projects would be more cost-effective in reducing existing overcrowding and with less disruption to the network than HS2.

Brown said the survey also indicated that the project could free up space on the road network because around half of the 21 per cent of people who said they would occasionally or frequently use HS2 said it would replace existing journeys they made by car.

Opinion on HS2 among the 2000 people interviewed was split almost evenly, with 33 per cent supporting and 31 per cent opposing the project, with a further 30 per cent saying they were indifferent.

Of those who opposed it, 80 per cent said the project was too expensive, 73 per cent said the alternative of upgrading the existing network would be a better use of money and 62 per cent said it would damage the UK countryside.

In response to the survey, HS2 lead spokesperson Ben Ruse said: ’It is high time we put to bed one of the common misconceptions to overshadow the project. HS2 is not being built at the expense of other transport projects in the country. The Government is investing more than £56bn on roads, other rail & local transport between 2015 & 2021.

’The  truth is that even if we spent £20 billion patching and mending the existing main lines, it would deliver less than half the benefits of HS2 – and would require weekend closures on the East Coast and Midland Mainline for up to 14 years.

’In addition to supporting up to 400,000 jobs across the UK, taking freight off the motorways and providing faster journey times between our major cities, HS2 will also integrate seamlessly into the existing rail network. For example, high speed trains will be able to stop at Crewe Station and carry on the West Coast Mainline towards places such as Liverpool and Preston.’ 

Readers' comments (14)

  • I suspect most would be in favour of the project if it wasn't the only one. When you're not directly affected by HS2 the dire straights of your local system is bound to be more important to you. I used the Liverpool to Manchester line several times last winter and everyone on the very overcrowded train was wrapped up in woolly hats and gloves because there was no heating in the carriage despite it being powered by diesel engines pumping out free heat.

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  • Many of the issues I have heard are that HS2 is solely designed to benefit London by increasing its catchment area. This is a valid point.
    Many other concerns are the amount of debt it will create for years to come through interest only loans being taken out to fund it. Another valid point.
    Even more concerns have been voiced as to why London should benefit while the rest of the country doesn't. Another valid point.

    Moreover, people are concerned by this, London gets lots of money spent on a project benefitting them. Many people outside London are sick of seeing this while they see their local infrastructure degrading and not being improved. They object to paying to a scheme which knocks a few minutes of a train journey and is no real benefit to them or their communities. In short they want something benefitting tem and their community from their money.

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  • The technical director of HS2 had some interesting things to say about the benefits of HS2 to the north in our interview:

  • Given the state of the Victorian infrastructure that's literally falling apart. Dawlish, Botley and soon the Somerset Level's lines, investing in upgrading the current network, with proper footings and foundations, secure embankments that won't slip would be a good start! HS2, great idea, but under-investment/profiteering on the rest will drag it down too.

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  • Those of us who live in London and the South East would be only too pleased if benefit is made available further away, perhaps we could get our towns back and reduce our congestion. We do not need HS2 to serve us, just let it take the pressures away.

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  • Dawlish is actually a good example of why main arterial routes need to be built from scratch in better locations and with straighter routes to allow faster traffic and greater capacity. Repeated piece-meal upgrading is not good enough even with proper footings and foundations.

    We wouldn't build new motorways following the exact route of old A roads or Turpinian turnpike routes. Yet the demand to upgrade old railway lines means we don't get the benefits of new technology or ways of doing things generally.

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  • The logic of moving high speed passenger trains off other lines to improve throughput is the most understandable and worthwhile argument to me.

    The cost of travel on HS2 seems high, however. Rail journeys already seem very costly compared to flying or coaches so I understand people thinking that the benefits do not apply to them - only to hypothetical 'businessmen.'

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  • Initially the justification for HS2 was to reduce travel times. Then, when this fell out of favour, the argument changed to increasing network capacity. Deciding on a bold solution before identifying the problem is always a bad way of making major infrastructure decisions.
    We need to go back to basics and make a determined effort to predict our communications needs in thirty years time before we decide that HS2 is the answer. Some suggestions to kick off this debate are made at

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  • Those directly involved in the project have been arguing HS2 provides a solution to capacity AND speed issues all along:

  • The recent Dawlish washaway is another and very good example of the Beeching disaster which removed alternative routes. The closure of the GCR is arguably the best example of short term thinking. Perhaps now is the time to restore the LSWR line between Exeter and Plymouth after all the gap is not too great.
    Yet another example of the short term thinking of accountants and lawyers: both should be kept in their places and out of long term projects which they do not understand.
    If the Railways had been dealt with properly the exchequer would not have to shell out so much for remediations.

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  • How I agree with Bill Courtney. In Engineering we start by defining the problem and only when we understand the problem do we try to come up with a solution. In the case of HS2 we are still struggling to define a problem which justifies the solution which we want to adopt. This is no way to decide on infrastructure projects. It looks very much that we want high speed rail to "keep up with the Jones's" rather like a badge of entry into some elite club of nations Now we need to find a way of justifying it. It is time for a complete re-think. If capacity is the real issue then high speed is not what you need. The higher the design speed the more expensive the railway will be to construct and to run. Reduce the speed and lots of things get easier e.g. you have more routing options because of tighter turn radii, local noise mitigation is easier and cheaper. you can have more intermediate stations so more people can benefit from the new railway, etc. The only problem with lower speed is that it simply isn't so exciting and prestigious. Of course, capacity is only an issue if we predict massive increases in business rail travel which I seriously doubt will really happen. Let's spend money on rail infrastructure by all means but let's define some problems first and then prioritise the solutions.

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  • What is wrong with double decker trains used to significantly increase capacity of trains in Germany and France.

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