HS2? Please look beyond the tracks!

Published on Friday 9th March 2012

An article by Elizabeth Louise Williams

We are told capacity is at crisis point at peak times on certain lines in particular the WCML and something has to be done.

Imagine the HS2 proposal didn't exist

Imagine the HS2 proposal didn’t exist. Even more so, imagine, a new line is out of the question for the same reasons motorways are no longer de rigeur due to the huge and originally unanticipated environmental costs.

What I won’t ask you to do is imagine the country without our existing rail network. The Roman Road network was the largest infrastructure project this country ever saw, followed by the Canals and then the motorways.

At the same time, imagine a national transport strategy was in place that meant every penny invested in our transport network had to demonstrate a genuine and measurable contribution to addressing transport priorities for the nation as a whole, environmental sustainability, CO2 reduction, overall connectivity, value for money, social cohesion, sustainable economic activity, impacts on health and was not encouraging unnecessary or exponential new journeys. Your solution must include door to door travel not just rail station to station and benefit society as a whole.

What would you do and you’re not allowed to say HS2? My point being have you, as someone interested in rail, really, honestly, truthfully looked at other options available? I bet you haven’t or if you have you have taken a cursory glance as HS2 sounds so marvellous why bother? What could be better than a brand new track with all the bells and whistles and amazing speed?

Fulfilling criteria

I am deliberately playing devil’s advocate here, but it is for a very fine reason. HS2 does not fulfil any of the aforementioned criteria. It does not in fact fulfil any of the Government criteria that governs such a project or the aspirations whilst it was still an embryo. It is a rail solution to a rail problem devised by specialists from the rail industry. Not a good start for objectivity. Add to that, HS2 Ltd was set up and Arup appointed by exchange of letter at a cost of £7m to the taxpayer to produce a North to South high speed rail line so that is what we got. Not an investigation into an overall strategy; HS2 is a stand alone project

The project

As we all should know, the project is connected to the 1996 EU Directive for a Transoperable High Speed Network. So, although the Bow Groupwere instigators of the research into the line the blame for HS2 lies squarely with Brussels. UKIP categorically objects to HS2 as does the Green Party.

A transoperable high speed rail network is an idea with merit and in fact the EU’s publication High Speed Europe refers to the United Kingdom’s already high Speed ECML, WCML and naturally HS1. Does HS2 as planned connect to a “High Speed Network”? No. It terminates in Euston with an interchange at Old Oak Common. It doesn’t even go to Heathrow, yet, as to include the costs for the spur destroys the already desperately poor economic case.

Having worked for two decades in regeneration and construction it never ceases to amaze me how projects can take on a life of their own, desperately seeking to survive whilst people go along with them as it is too difficult or brave to say hold on, this is nonsense lets go back to the drawing board and find a better solution.”The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones” John Maynard Keynes.HS2 is one of these projects that is being patched time and time again and will be a poorly plastered white elephant at vast economic and environmental cost. Exactly what Sir Rod Eddington told us never to fall for in his The Eddington Transport Study, 2006.

What HS2 is meant to do

Firstly HS2 was meant to reduce CO2 and provide tremendous modal shift from planes to trains. It doesn’t and that has quietly been dropped by the government as its own figures show CO2 neutral at best (and that is before the additional tunnelling planned is included) and a modal shift of tiny proportions. As a result even the Green Party and Friends of the Earth who wholeheartedly support sustainable HSR opposes the HS2 project as it stands.

Then there is the North South Divide. HS2 was supposed to be a silver bullet for this endemic British problem but the Dfts own figures show the winner will be London, acting as a high speed vortex sucking people, jobs and investment South at massive costs environmentally and economically to the whole country. All HS2 has done since announcement has deliberately pitched Northerners against Southerners with the pro campaign branding all opposition as Nimby, Luddite and LawnLoonies. It appears Cameron is willing to sacrifice “safe” Conservative seats in the South to buy hard to obtain Blue votes in the North by the “promise” of jobs which are in fact not guaranteed.

Jobs you say! Fantastic! But at a job creation cost of circa £400,000 per job according to the Tax Payers Alliance. I’d rather keep people in work now please than spend £750 million now believed to be over £1billion this parliament on consultants on HS2.

The anti-campaign

I hear the pro campaign groaning as they read this, but I’m sorry pro lobby, the anti-campaign is there for two key reasons – firstly HS2 is the wrong project on every single level and secondly because of the appalling way those directly affected are being treated by the Government. Stop treating the public as your enemy – you work for us not the other way around and if your do need people to sacrifice what is most dear to them be fair and transparent about it!

The route

Let’s look at more. The route – how did it come about? In very simplistic terms, it is the straightest, flattest route avoiding as many homes as possible. As a consequence it destroys thousands of acres of open environment including irreplaceable productive farm land which will result in more imports and more CO2. Its impact on floodplains is not taken properly into account; an assumption having been made by the rail engineers that that can be dealt with. It can but with massive additional land take, cost and engineering not to mention ground water issues.

The route needs to be this straight and this flat in order to meet the 225mph initial and 250mph maximum intended operating speed. Why so fast? In order to justify the economic case based on time savings in competition with other lines. The M6 Toll is a classic example however of how people prefer the cheaper option rather than the fastest unless they are on above average salaries.


The speed is the biggest problem with HS2. At 225-250mph the energy consumption is significantly higher than conventional rail up to 186 mph. This destroys the CO2 arguments for the line. It also means more environment pollution through sound and vibration increasing mitigation costs. Do people really believe the operating capacity of 18 trains an hour (each way) with 1,100 on each will be met 19 hours a day? Many of these are new journeys and therefore we are encouraging additional travel which is viewed environmentally irresponsible by many.

If we have to have a new line, which I personally do not agree we need, if you drop the speed the route can follow a more sustainable option and could genuinely act as a catalyst by not bypassing but encompassing with open arms areas which would benefit greatly from regeneration. Take a look at The Right Lines Charter.

Upgrading the WCML

They say it is too “disruptive” to further upgrade the WCML. What is more damaging, passengers on a railway waiting longer for trains or the road network being heavily congested and causing massive air pollution? HS2 disrupts two of the main motorways in the UK, the M6 and M42 not to mention many other smaller roads, the Chiltern Line and Euston. When questioned HS2 Ltd and the Dft have admitted the Economic disruption costs of HS2 have been calculated at Zero apart from compensation to the Chiltern Line. That is a fool’s arithmetic. They have also not taken in to account any of the jobs lost and only land values will be compensated for, not loss of business.

The email exchange stated:

"From: HS2Enquiries@HS2.gsi.gov.uk

Date: Thu, 25 Aug 2011 09:57:51 +0100

Subject: HS2 Ltd - Roadshow enquiry regarding disruption costs

Thank you for attending the HS2 public consultation roadshow held at Greatworth.

Please accept my sincerest apologies for the delay in your response.

Please find the query you put forward to us addressed below.

Why aren’t disruption costs included, and what analysis has there been of the disruption to the economy?

Some permanent disruption costs have been accounted for, such as the cost of property acquisition, and disruption to Train Operating Companies.

HS2 may lead to some permanent journey time impacts, which have also been accounted for as a disbenefit. Adverse local impacts, such as traffic disruption has not been included since it is not yet clear what that disruption would be.

If Government decides to proceed with HS2 then these will be included in the Environmental Impact Assessment, to be undertaken next year."

HS2 is one project. HSR is another matter. Ask virtually anyone in this country whether they are generally supportive of high speed rail they are, but not as a priority in overall transport issues (RAC MORI).

An outsider looking in

From being an outsider looking in, HS2 has been put together by the rail industry for the rail industry to address a rail problem. That is the key issue here. Until Governments enable national strategies that weigh Economic, Environmental and Social Costs equally (as ironically demonstrated in a Venn diagram on the Network Rail website) acceptable solutions will never arise. It is not only about 25, 30 or 60 year financial modelling based simply on capital and revenue costs, it is about providing benefits that outweigh environmental costs which in turn have economic costs to the all of us. Everything about sustainability in HS2 has been approached as an afterthought instead of a priority from the start. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) should come first not last particularly in the selection of a route! Saying you cannot afford to do that is a nonsense. Any successful construction project is a success based on preparatory work and due diligence. You do not cost a new build without taking into account piling for example – you do your ground investigation!

It astounded me as I walked the entire route in 2010 that the plans used by HS2 Ltd and Dft had not been kept up to date and development along the line was continuing apace and was not included in the plans. The additional tunnelling in parts of London may be more due to the fact there are new buildings now rather than appeasing locals.

As an industry, rail needs to embrace the fact that subsidy is not a right it is a wage from the country for doing a valued job right and HS2 doesn’t do the job. It also needs to put Environment, Diversity, Equality and Public Relations (not lip service) at the top of the agenda. It is clear to me that there is a fierce, defensive collection of people within the industry that will defend it by any means rather than addressing a need for change and the benefits of constructive criticism. No HS2 doesn’t mean no rail industry.

When I met Pete Waterman in 2011, there were two things we agreed on – bring back the SRA and do not let politicians meddle in rail. He was also “not wedded to the 250mph”. The Government shouldn’t be but without it they have no Economic Case. Pete really likes his “build it and they will come” – he’s right about that but we have learned with the motorways that is not a good thing. Build it and we fill it and we end up at square one but with a bigger pollution problem.

When I started looking at HS2 two years ago I was uncertain about the privatisation of the railways being a good or a bad thing but now I am convinced. It is most definitely bad. Private companies are dictating how our rail industry is run and governed despite the public subsidising it and are free to lobby Government to their own benefit. This is wrong.

We need to be more radical in this country with major infrastructure. HS2 is not radical, or rational it is out of date rail rhetoric. The rail industry deserves and should demand better as the public is doing on HS2.

I know I will have sparked a raw nerve here and expect the feedback to be rambunctious to say the least but if only one of you goes back and looks at HS2 with fresh eyes again that is all I can ask.


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I am in favour of HS2, but the project is not ambitious enough

Posted on Sunday 11th March 2012 | 9:46 PM

The main point is that HS2 even if fast is still steel on rail technology, and to enulate the sort of progress that the Victorians did, we neeed to go much further and faster. It is a quantum leap. In the 1960s and 1970s Birmingham had a maglev railway at its Airport, but stupidly the technolgy was abandoned and a tracked tram replaced it. If we firstly instll a maglev for HS2 (one is proposed for the proposed Thmes Estuary Airport) and then put it in an underground tube running along the best line of the motorways and railways from London to Birmingham, we can turn it into a vacuum maglev or vacway. You may think that's impossiblly expensive, but United Utilities is intending to build a water piple line of similar dimensions from the Lake District to London for £2.7B If a water pipeline, why not a maglev railway. The train itself would do most of the exhausting and properly built it will keep its low pressure.

Charles Norrie

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