I have been asked quite a bit recently about what I think of the plans for a new high-speed railway line between London and Birmingham, and so I thought that I would blog about it. I appreciate that this may not be of interest to everyone, but then when is that ever the case with my contributions to the Blogosphere?
As a Transport Researcher, I should probably know more about some of the hard facts than I do, so I apologise in advance if you think that you’ve got a more educated opinion than me. However, on the basis of what I do currently know, I am not hugely in favour of the scheme. My reasoning can be broken down as follows:
The biggest argument for building High Speed 2 is capacity. It is argued that the current transport links (chiefly the West Coast Mainline and the M6) are overcrowded and are not going to cope with predicted future travel demand. This is probably very true, but is all of the predicted future demand necessary? In an age when we need to be thinking about our energy usage and environmental impact, would it not be better to try and reduce the amount we travel? Additionally, I fear that HS2 risks falling in to the old trap of ‘predict-and-provide’ transport planning; in the past, transport schemes have been built to cater for demand and ease congestion, and have ended up becoming congested themselves as demand soars. In other words, if HS2 is built, will we still have a congested transport corridor in 20 years time such that we need yet another new link?
Link to Heathrow
I think that if HS2 is built it should have a proper link to Heathrow, as a stop on the mainline and not as a spur. The eco-weenies amongst you will doubtless complain at this point, and tell me that I shouldn’t be encouraging flying like this, but I will simply say “get real.” The lack of access and capacity at Heathrow has not, as some might proudly try and tell you, reduced demand for aviation. Instead, let me point out that Emirates can now justify flying several of their large a380s in and out of Manchester each day. KLM and Lufthansa also have good connections to the UK regions.
We need to accept that, for the time being at least, people are going to want to fly long-haul to reach Africa, America, Asia and Australia. So rather than give away the business to the foreign hubs in Dubai, Amsterdam, Paris and Frankfurt (possibly increasing the amount of flying and CO2 emissions in the process) we should be following the example of the Germans (Frankfurt), Dutch (Amsterdam-Schipol) and the French (Paris-Charles de Gaulle) and having good high-speed rail links to Heathrow with through ticketing. That way, the amount of flying is reduced (those travelling long-haul from the UK regions only take one flight, not two) and we keep the business in the UK.
Let me put it this way. Suppose you live in the north-west and want to fly to South Africa. Do you a) board an a380 and fly via Dubai, or b) pay more for a rail ticket, and struggle with your cases amongst the commuters at the Cross-Rail Interchange on your way to Heathrow?
Much of the predicted economic benefit from building HS2 is based on the fact that time = money and if you save someone time on the train they are more productive elsewhere. I, however, am sceptical about this. If you allow someone to get from London to Birmingham in less time, are they really going to spend that extra time at work? Or are they going to have a lie-in, at no economic benefit to anyone? Perhaps the bus connections at each end are such that actually, the time “saved” is spent waiting in the cold for a bus. Or perhaps some people will even move further from the office and commute for the same amount of time.
Additionally, no-one seems to have taken too much notice of the fact that time spent on the train can be productive. Chiltern Trains have picked up on this with their new Mainline Service, with a real emphasis on an onboard environment which is conducive to working/catching up on emails etc. I like this approach, and have long argued that “airline style seating” works on a plane because you don’t have to spend very long sitting in it, whilst on a train passengers would rather not feel like they are on a plane. Instead, space to work, or just to stretch out, is much more beneficial. Train designers have ignored this fact for a while though. Richard Branson, the King of Gimmicks, may proudly point out the power-points on his trains, but what’s the point in being able to charge my laptop if I don’t have the space to use it?
Finally, I am also quite sceptical about the environmental benefits HS2 may bring…but I’ll save that for another post.