Author Mark Richards

The Government has announced the routes for the extension of HS2 to Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield. Will the project transform the UK’s cities and infrastructure? Or will it have exactly the opposite effect to the Government’s plans?

‘All roads lead to Rome,’ was the saying in the days of the Roman Empire. But the phrase may shortly need to be re-written. ‘All railway lines lead to London’ could be the words on everyone’s lips as the Government presses ahead with its plans for HS2. Earlier this week it unveiled the routes for the connections to Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield – which was not great news for the residents of the Shimmer estate near Sheffield, where brand new homes will be bulldozed to make way for HS2. Anyone remember Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the hyperspace express route

What is HS2?

HS (High Speed) 2 is a planned high-speed railway linking London with Birmingham, the East Midlands, Leeds and Manchester. Work on the first phase is scheduled to begin in 2017, reaching Birmingham in 2026, Crewe by 2027 and be fully completed by 2033. Cities like Carlisle, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Newcastle will be linked to the new network by HS2 trains running on existing slower tracks.

The project is due to be completed in two phases: phase 1 is from London to the West Midlands and phase 2 is from the West Midlands to the other HS2 stations. It is estimated that when HS2 is completed peak hour traffic at a station like Euston will more than triple, from the current 11,300 people per hour to 34,900.

What are the economic benefits?

Current Transport Minister Chris Grayling has said that,

“As well as providing desperately needed new seats and better connecting our major cities, HS2 will rebalance our economy.”

By that he means that HS2 will ‘shrink’ the North/South divide – journey times will certainly be reduced but, as we discuss later, whether this will ultimately result in more business being done in London remains to be seen. The Government is suggesting that for every £1 spent on HS2 £1.40 will initially be generated by extra jobs and extra investment: ultimately this will rise to £1.90 when HS2 is complete. However, a report produced by the engineering firm Atkins (and quietly kicked into the long grass) did suggest an equivalent cost/benefit figure of £6.06 for simply improving the existing rail infrastructure.

How much time will passengers save by using HS2?

How much time will passengers save by using HS2?

Quite a lot is the answer – assuming there are no leaves on the line…

An hour will be taken off the journey time from London to Birmingham, while Manchester to Birmingham will come down from 88 minutes to just 41 minutes. You will save 41 minutes from London to Liverpool and 36 minutes on the journey to Sheffield Midland.  Current estimates are that the London to Manchester Piccadilly saving will be 60 minutes, so if nothing else, HS2 will be great news for the legions of Manchester United supporters living in Kent and Surrey…

How much will HS2 cost?

The current official figure is £56bn, with Chris Grayling saying that the project will be “on time and on budget” with the government having “a clear idea of what it will cost.” As we all know, there has never been a government project that has gone over budget, so Mr Grayling was quite right to dismiss claims by quantity surveyor Michael Byng (who previously worked with Network Rail) that HS2 will actually cost £100bn, making it the most expensive railway in the world.

How can the government afford £56bn for HS2 and not find any money for teachers and nurses?

A question that is frequently asked, especially by those labouring under the 1% cap on public pay. The textbook answer is that HS2 is a capital investment over the next 15-20 years, whereas public sector pay comes from current spending which is part of the overall budget the Chancellor is trying to balance. Don’t shoot the messenger: I am only stating the Government’s position…

Why has it been criticised?

Apart from the cost, HS2 will have a huge environmental impact according to the website StopHS2 (who estimate the cost at £111bn – even more than the £100bn quoted above). HS2 will cut through sensitive environmental sites, endanger rare species and – with the trains due to travel at up to 200mph – increase carbon emissions. According to StopHS2’s website, the carbon emissions from building HS2 will cancel out all carbon savings for the next 60 years. There are also plans to use some ancient woodlands as ‘temporary construction depots.’ Clearly, once an ancient woodland has been destroyed it can never be replaced.

HS2 has also been criticised on the grounds that what is needed is not more connections to London, but more – and better – connections between regional cities. If you run a business in Leeds then connections to York and Manchester are every bit as important as connections to London. If you in Sheffield, there is a fair chance that your clients will be in Derby or Doncaster. The points critics make is the whole UK infrastructure needs upgrading, not simply the connections to the capital.

Critics also argue that cutting the journey time is not really that important. After all, if there is Wi-Fi on the trains, it is hardly time wasted. And how many people do you know who actually like train journeys? As one very successful entrepreneur said to me, “Train journeys are great. They give you the chance to work on your business, not in your business.”

Could HS2 possibly be a waste of public money?

Well, let me ask you a simple question. How many PR (public relations) companies do you think HS2 has hired? One? No, come on, it is a major infrastructure project and the PR people will be fielding constant enquiries. So two or three PR companies seem reasonable? On March 21st the Guido Fawkes blog broke the news that HS2 has so far hired 17 (no, that is not a misprint) PR companies – plus another 12 consultancy and production firms. Neither are we talking local or regional companies here: the companies largely appear to be major London companies who will charge the taxpayer (also known as you and me) accordingly. All aboard the gravy train…

The Law of Unintended Consequences

Chris Grayling has said that HS2 will “rebalance our economy.” Could it be that the Law of Unintended Consequences will apply and it will have exactly the opposite effect? That it will simply suck more money to the centre? That Google, secure in its new landscraper HQ at King’s Cross will simply say, “Nope, you can be here in an hour. Get on the train and come to us.”

Professor John Tomaney at University College, London says that evidence from France, Spain and South Korea suggests that it is the capital that will benefit most from HS2 and that Birmingham will ultimately become part of the South East labour market.

Whatever the doubts and the protests, HS2 was always going ahead. Given Philip Hammond’s belief that government investment can drive the economy, a project like HS2 was never going to be scrapped. The new contracts to build the first phase between London and Birmingham have been announced and the government has trumpeted the fact that they will support 16,000 jobs. What’s not to love? Nothing, if you are Chris Grayling, the MP for Epsom and Ewell. Plenty, if your house is being demolished to make way for HS2, if the farm that has been in your family for generations is being bulldozed, or the ancient woodland where you walk your dog is shortly to become a  temporary construction depot…