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.’