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Analysis: The Debate over High Speed 2

12th January 2012

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The Government's decision to press ahead with High Speed 2 has been marred with controversy. Supporters of the project believe that it is essential to modernise the Victorian railway infrastructure this country relies on, and to put Britain on par with our international partners. Opposition to HS2 is multifarious, ranging between those whose houses are to be destroyed to make way for HS2, those with environmental concerns, and those who simply doubt its economic utility.
The practical benefit to the individual will be a quicker journey between London and the north, with the train stopping initially at Birmingham then extending to Leeds and Manchester. Journey times on HS2 to Birmingham will take 49 minutes, down from the current 1 hour 25 minutes. Some argue that such a reduction is unjustifiable in light of the costs, since the journey is relatively fast regardless. Government ministers argue that time spent on trains is unproductive wasted time, however this is simply not true demonstrated by the army of laptop wielding commuters.
However, journey times are not the whole story, a new line can ease congestion and overcrowding on other lines and on the roads. Both of these are becoming serious problems to the national infrastructure, especially on the Western Main Line. Opponents argue that there are other less intrusive and expensive ways to alleviate this congestion, and there is no guarantee commuters will flock to HS2, especially if tickets are expensive.
Another repeated argument in favour of HS2 is the need to emulate high speed achievements. John Longworth of the British Chamber of Commerce states that the fact that Britain's current high speed line is smaller than Morocco's and Saudi Arabia's is a "continuous embarrassment to British businesses promoting the UK overseas." But Britain should not embark upon this costly project in order to "keep up with the Jonses" so to speak, no two countries are alike and so comparisons of this sort are spurious. Britain is a small dense island; high speed here will not have the same effect as it would in China for example.
The cost is projected to be £32.7bn, which seems to be a huge amount in times of austerity. However the Government is quick to point out it will deliver benefits to the economy worth £42bn, a statistic which has been challenged. The case put forward is that HS2 will be a huge boost to the north; being more closely linked to London will bring much needed jobs and investment, and it has the wide support of business leaders in the area.
The Economist claims that these economic benefits are overstated. It claims that high speed rail could in fact do damage by siphoning growth from northern cities to London, shown by the case of Madrid continuing to grow at the expense of Seville. Philip Hammond, while transport minister, argued that this was fallacious, and the logic of the argument entails that cities can only thrive if left isolated.
HS2 could come at a detriment to existing rail services too, with towns which currently have good services to the capital such as Crewe and Milton Keynes facing fewer and slower services to London as HS2 is prioritised. This could be devastating to such towns. The Government argue that it is planned that services to such towns will in fact increase due to freed up capacity, but it is seriously doubted. Indeed due to High Speed 1 there are fewer peak time trains to Shepherdswell, my local village station!
The environmental case against HS2 is argued most vehemently. Wildlife trusts argue that up to 150 nature sites could be affected and acres of forestry will be lost. There are also concerns from within the Conservative party it will blight the Chilterns, a tory supporting area, so the transport secretary and the government are particularly sensitive to these issues. Now it is planned that almost half of the route to Birmingham will be tunnelled to diffuse these worries, increasing costs dramatically.
There may be more effective and even cheaper ways to attain the similar goal of the improvement of the national rail infrastructure. Instead of building a new line, focus on upgrading the existing lines by improving signalling and lengthening platforms in order to facilitate speed and capacity increases. The Government contend that a "patch and mend" approach will do nothing in the long term to solve problems.
What can be certain is that the argument is by no means over. Those opposed are expected to mount a judicial review of the decision, and with opposition within the Conservative Party to the project too there is no chance the issue will disappear. 

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