Time for a rethink on high-speed rail

Features editor
The Engineer

There’s a good case for a high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham and beyond, says the Commons Transport Committee. So does that mean that the £32bn project should now go ahead? Look at the report, and it seems like the committee themselves aren’t that sure.

In fact, it seems like this ‘good case’ isn’t that good at all. The economic benefit of the line isn’t clear, the MPs said. The line has to go beyond Birmingham, to Leeds and Manchester — a commitment that the government hasn’t yet made, it adds. The impact on communities along the route is substantial. And most worrying of all for supporters of the scheme, the environmental benefits “don’t stand up to scrutiny.”

Taking all that on board, the report, which many had seen as providing a potential green light for the project, begins to look more like amber, or even red. Recommending that the HS2 planners reevaluate the impact, route and benefits of the project is hardly a vote of confidence; in fact, it’s casting severe doubt on pretty much every aspect of the project. And that’s before we even get to surely-vexed questions about who gets the contract to build it and where the equipment comes from.

A high-speed link from London to Birmingham would cut about 20 minutes off the fastest train journey time — Euston to New Street in 49 minutes. But, frankly, so what? That hardly seems like something that’s going to make a massive contribution to industry. It probably isn’t going to persuade that many more people out of their cars and onto the trains. Extending the line to Leeds and Manchester might, indeed, help here; it would mean that it could be worth the while for people in northern cities to use the Channel Tunnel rail link to get to Paris and Brussels, rather than flying, if the train was priced competitively (although the line wouldn’t be complete for 25 years). Taking it even further north, to Edinburgh and Glasgow, would be even better; a good, fast train service could render shuttle flights from London irrelevant.

But every mile of line increases the cost and adds complexity to route planning, and we’re supposed to be avoiding unnecessary spending in these straitened times. Nobody flies from London to Birmingham. Hardly anyone flies to Manchester or Leeds. Without that environmental advantage of changing modes of transport, the basis for HS2 looks very shaky indeed.

We’re enthusiasts for technology at The Engineer; that goes without saying. Big projects fire the imagination, as well as providing employment. But in this relatively small country, with its long-established settlements scattered all over the countryside, infrastructure project such as HS2 are notoriously tricky. The concerns raised by the Commons Committee are beginning to make it look like one of those British disasters-in-waiting that we all dread. It seems like the plan should go back to the drawing-board — and all options, including upgrading existing lines, need to be considered. It’s only worth doing if it’s done right.