By Olivia Groom
HS2 is one of the most controversial current government projects in contemporary Britain. Penny Gaines, one of many critics and chair of ‘Stop HS2’, argues that “the case for HS2 has always been poor, and is simply getting worse…it is time for this white elephant of a project to be cancelled as quickly as possible.” Given the serious economic turmoil caused by coronavirus restrictions, the U.K. is bound to experience increased doubts over its mounting costs. It is budgeted at £56 billion – a figure already expected to rise by as much as £30 billion. Yet, the high-speed rail network will create an important and economically beneficial link between the North and the South, which far outweighs the costs. The first phase of the project is the line between Birmingham and London, which is planned to open in 2026, and the second phase involves links to Manchester and Leeds, planned to open by 2033, with trains reaching unprecedented speeds of 250mph.
HS2 will play a significant role in stimulating the North’s economy. A KPMG report, commissioned by the government, estimates that HS2 will boost Birmingham’s economy by up to 4.2%, as well as an impressive overall £15 billion increase in the UK’s economy. The construction itself will generate approximately 100,000 jobs. Moreover, connecting the North and the South will greatly help to decrease the divide, which, although deeply ingrained in Britain’s history, has become only more prominent during lockdown due to tougher restrictions in the North of England. Not only will it make transport between the two far quicker, the business connectivity will increase by 23% due to HS2 in the city regions of the North and Midlands. The Backing Northern Powerhouse Rail report found that out of 5,000 business, 99% believed that HS2 would raise productivity in the North Powerhouse – the schema aimed at boosting local economy across the region. Therefore, the impact of HS2 will be fundamental to aiding Britain’s – and the North’s – floundering economy. Whilst the project has been criticised for its rising costs, in reality, the increased expenditure only amounts to less than 0.4% of total public spending. Thus, the net economic effect of HS2 will be hugely beneficial to Britain.
HS2 will be fast. It will dramatically cut journey times: London to Manchester will only take one hour, whilst Birmingham to Nottingham, which currently takes over an hour will diminish to an impressive 19 minutes. However, this isn’t the main advantage of HS2. The principle purpose is to significantly increase capacity of overflowing, crammed train services, causing even the former Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn to sit on the floor. Britain’s railways carry a mix of express intercity trains and local and commuter services. Thus, local stopping trains require a large gap behind them to avoid express trains catching up, which dramatically reduces the number of trains running. As a result, the UK’s train capacity is fairly low and tickets are expensive. With HS2, the express services will be taken away from local and commuter services, so trains are travelling at similar speeds, allowing for more to be fitted in, and thus dramatically improving our flawed railway system. The advantages are indisputable: the trains will be able to carry 1,100 passengers with services of up to 14 times an hour, thus increasing rail capacity by 30%. This is essential considering that by the mid 2020s the West Coast Main Line will reach full capacity. HS2 will relieve pressure where it is most needed; four of the 10 most overcrowded services across the UK were London Midland. Due to this relieved pressure, at least 22 other smaller cities and towns will benefit from better rail services, including Bradford, Wakefield, Doncaster, and Hull in Yorkshire alone. In a country so focused on London and the South, the HS2 will open up the North and the Midlands, whilst increasing much-needed capacity on our crammed trains.
The environmental impact of HS2 is also important to consider. The Green Party has condemned the project, stating that it is “already inflicting environmental vandalism on our countryside and woodlands as the cost of the project continues to spiral.” It is undeniable that HS2 will not improve the environment, of course, but other alternatives are far worse. Whilst 29 hectares of ancient woodland will be cut down due to 140 miles of HS2 line, widening a single 2.5-mile road, the A21 in Kent and Sussex, will take down 9 hectares. Yet, if train services fail to deliver, the country will need far more road schemes. Without doubt, constructing HS2 will be far less harmful than hysterical critics threaten. Furthermore, trains are by far the most environmentally friendly way to travel; the greenhouse effect of gas emissions per km on railway transport is 80% less than cars. HS2 will encourage passengers to use railway services instead of driving, thus reducing the environmental damage caused by travelling. In reality, the trains will be highly energy efficient and powered by a grid that uses increasing amounts of energy from zero carbon sources such as solar and wind generation. Indeed, for long-distance trips, trains are far better for the environment than planes. HS2 will provide a low carbon alternative, offering 17 less carbon emissions per passenger kilometre than domestic air travels, for example. High speed rail lines can reduce aviation transport on the same routes by as much as 80%.
Not only is HS2 clearly a better solution environmentally than other methods of transport, it is also superior to previous railway services. For example, the HS2 stations are also far more environmentally friendly than average railway stations; the new HS2 Curzon Street station will reduce carbon emissions by 55%. Hence, despite what critics argue, the net effect of HS2 will be good for the environment.
Another area of dispute is the disruption caused to rural England. Across the entire line, more than 900 homes will either be bulldozed or cut off from their wider neighbourhood. The line will cut through areas of historic and scientific interest, as well as 250 acres of green belt land. However, with all projects comes disruption. Whilst the construction of HS2 will disrupt many in the countryside who will not experience the advantages of the railway, the overall economic benefit to the country is indisputable.
Overall, HS2 may not be a perfect solution, but it is essential for Britain to invest in newer, greater technology that will increase capacity and efficiency, whilst reducing prices. There is a cost to everything – however, the cost of remaining in a standstill state is far greater than the cost of innovation. There are certainly other alternatives, such as using the Great Central line or electrification but, these would be far less effective, only reaching speeds of 140mph. Although many have pointed towards Hyperloop as a future ambition, with the train achieving 1000km/h speed in Korea, it will not be ready in the near-future; Lux Research In., released a report predicting that Hyperloop will not be ready until 2040, and is therefore not a solution for the present. In a post-coronavirus world, the U.K. needs revolutionary investment now more than ever before to bridge the gap between the North and the South: HS2 offers that very opportunity.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.