What are the alternatives to HS2?

The Lords have slammed the proposed £50bn rail link, saying the government has yet to make a convincing case for it - but the other options aren't much better.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 03 Jul 2015

Everyone’s favourite House of Lords select committee (the Economic Affairs Committee, of course) has published a 130-page report claiming that the government has not yet proven a ‘convincing case’ for the £50bn HS2 rail network.

HS2 as planned will be a Y-shaped high speed network from London to Birmingham (operational by 2026) and from there to Manchester and Yorkshire (operational by 2032-3). The project, developed under the last Labour government and enjoying the support of the three major parties (sorry Greens and UKIP), is designed to boost growth by connecting England’s major cities, increase rail capacity and ‘rebalance’ the London-centred economy.

The Lords committee isn’t convinced by any of these reasons, at least for HS2’s £50bn price tag. ‘The government has not carried out a proper assessment of whether alternative ways of increasing capacity are more cost-effective than HS2’, said its chair Lord Hollick.

But what are the alternatives, and are they up to the job?

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The cheapest way to increase capacity is of course to make improvements to the existing lines. By increasing the length of trains and platforms, adding extra tracks at certain stations and other bottlenecks, and electrifying some lines, it would be possible to increase the capacity of the West Coast line by around 3,000 seats at a fraction of the cost of HS2.

This, however, presents two problems. Firstly, the disruption to those existing networks would be painful at best (visit London Bridge station at rush hour if you want an example). Secondly, the increase in capacity from a ‘patch and mend’ approach, as a representative of Virgin Trains put it, would be three times less than what HS2 would provide.

The Lords committee questioned whether this much capacity was really needed, pointing out that even at peak times only 50-60% of long distance trains leaving Euston were full. With a rising population and increasing congestion on the roads, however, there is a risk that this disruptive option would simply delay the need for a high speed line by a decade or so. Besides, as the history of transport proves, when the technology is there, the demand will follow.

A lower speed network

It's distinctly less sexy, but it would be possible to build a new rail line that isn’t high speed. The Lords questioned the need for HS2 to run at 250mph, pointing out that this increases the costs of the project compared to a slower line. However, as the Strategic Case for HS2 pointed out, a conventional line would only be 9% cheaper. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise. All the new trains and lines being built are high speed, because no one’s building conventional lines any more. If we had one, it would be a bespoke job.

For 91% of the cost, the new conventional line (perhaps LS47, or low speed 47?) wouldn’t actually reduce the journey times between major cities. HS2 is expected to bring the travel time from Manchester to London down to 68 minutes (a 46% reduction) and from London to Birmingham down to 49 minutes (40%).

Proponents of HS2 say this will improve productivity, as better connected cities mean a bigger and more efficient labour market. The Lords report said transport infrastructure investment doesn’t ‘necessarily’ lead to economic growth, at least on its own. Whether the alternative of having a poor, creaking network while other countries invest in state of the art networks, the report did not address.

HSUK

Another plan that’s popular with nimbys is HSUK, or high speed UK. Essentially, this is a plan to build a high speed network in a back yard no one cares about – right next to the M1. It’s true that this line down the nation’s ‘spine’ wouldn’t spoil anyone’s views, but with ‘spokes’ running from the main line to cities like Birmingham and Manchester, it wouldn’t be as effective in connecting London to the west.

Indeed, a little spoken about benefit of HS2 is that it would improve connections between major cities other than London, something this line wouldn’t help much with. HS2 is expected to cut the journey from Birmingham to Manchester to 41 minutes (a 53% reduction), for instance.

Besides, there’s no guarantee it would be cheaper than HS2. Labour peer Lord Adonis claimed it would be more expensive, though perhaps the former transport minister would say that.

Northern super-hub

The Lords report denied that HS2 would rebalance the economy, instead citing evidence from other countries that high speed lines benefit the capital more than the regions. It is true that high speed connections might draw other cities into London’s labour market orbit, but on the other hand London is expensive.

Indeed, HSBC yesterday announced it’s moving its retail and commercial headquarters from London to Birmingham. Making the midlands and north closer might encourage other firms to do the same.

The Lords considered the idea of investing in the regions instead, if rebalancing the economy is what the government wants. It’s true that cutting the time from Leeds and Sheffield to Manchester could give the area an economic critical mass, being big enough to compete with London in certain ways. But building a line across (or more to the point, under) the Pennines would not be cheap and would benefit a smaller part of the country than HS2.

Looking into the alternatives in greater detail isn’t necessarily a bad idea, although the process could cause further delays. At first glance, though, none of them looks much better. Either way, the Department for Transport won’t be too concerned at the Lords’ grumbling. With broad political support, the only thing that could (and may well) stop HS2 at this stage is the cost.

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