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Wednesday 11 January 2012

HS2. Right Idea. Wrong project

The always entertaining Rory Sutherland gave a Ted Talk in 2009 about his concerns over the £6 billion being spent on the High Speed upgrade between London and The Tunnel (or HS1 as we must now call it). As he said at the time…

“It strikes me as a slightly unimaginative way of improving a train journey, merely to make it shorter. What you should in fact do is employ all of the world’s top male and female supermodels and get them to walk the length of the train handing out free Chateau Petrus for the entire duration of the journey. You’ll still have £3billion in change and people will ask for the trains to be slowed down…”

And that’s what makes me uneasy about HS2. It’s solving the wrong problem.

I’m a big fan of capital projects when they move on the human experience. I don’t care if the actual Channel Tunnel (as opposed to HS1) will never pay for itself in capital outlay, it’s a testament to human achievement, it makes access to the continent easier for all, it’s greener than flying – I think the world’s a better place for its existence.

Knocking 20 minutes of the journey time to Birmingham doesn’t improve the human condition. Free wi-fi for all, roomier carriages, more trains, guaranteeing everyone a seat – they’d all make the journey better and more productive than 20 minutes less travel. You’ll probably get lots of those with the new line – but you could have it anyway, without ploughing a new furrow…

While the argument will continue to rage over whether HS2 is an economic investment that will make the country billions or an engineering white elephant that will lose money hand over fist, I prefer to think of it in human terms – will people’s lives be most enhanced by spending £33 billion on this, or something else?


  1. Julian Huppert's article on LDV a few months back stated that building a similar line at standard rather than high speed specification would save the taxpayer lass than 10% of the £33bn cost. True, a standard line could slalom around beauty spots and villages, but the more you do that the longer the journey time and the more attractive domestic flying becomes to those who value their non-travelling time.

    I really worry about this idea that travelling time is just as valuable as static time. It feels like classic 'knowing the price without knowing the value' stuff. How do you put a price on a parent getting home in time to tuck their child in at bedtime? You can't do that over wi-fi.

  2. If time is not of the essence why does everyone else whizz past me when I'm doing 50 mph on the A2 or M2 here in East Kent? As for HS1, I thought I'd never use it but the time saving is dramatic - 1 hour from Canterbury to London St Pancras instead of over two hours via Victoria or Charing X and the Tube.

    Michael Berridge

  3. Hi Duncan - was there every intention to build a new line anyway - I'm not sure that's true. Anyway, the new HS2 wont increase capacity - or at least isn't designed to - according to this piece I've picked up on ( http://www.chrisrichards.org.uk/post/15669528314/unanswered-questions-on-hs2-for-camden ). I agree on your travel time/static time issue - but 33bn for 20 minutes seems bit OTT..

    Hi Michael - and just to contradict myself - car travel is of course dead time, where you can do nothing else, whereas train travel is not. But I hear you on HS1 and you can only say as you find.

    Truth is - I really want to like HS2 - I'm all for capital projects, it is greener, and of course we need to modernise communications. But i'm not convinced that, of all the capital projects on offer - this was the best to pick. For example - we're spending 0.5 bn of upgrading broadband (with BT spending another 2.5) - that seems a rather more cost effective way of investing in modern infrastructure?

  4. Of course, I also want to like HS2 becasue of a lot of NIMBY stuff going on. But that's just me being petty.... :-)

  5. Whether by design or not, HS2 will definitely add capacity and that's the key reason I support it. Its direct connections from London to Birmingham and later Manchester mean it will primarily relieve the WCML to provide a better service to Milton Keynes, Watford, Northampton, Crewe, Stafford etc.

    I suspect this is its job by design. It is just being sold differently politically.

  6. Apparently the costing is £2bn for the railway and £30bn on the rail replacement bus service.

  7. Mr Sutton, you're wasted in accountancy :-)