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BBT March/April 2019 cover
March/April 2019

Mystery Buyer: the value of HS2?

HS2 Euston station

HS2 is being sold to us as a high-speed line, but is that what we are getting?

So – finally – the Department for Transport has revealed a few more details about the HS2 high-speed rail vanity project which, according to hotly-disputed figures, will cost something in the region of £56 billion.

Phase 1, between London and Birmingham, will cost £24.3 billion and is scheduled to be operational by 2026. Phase 2, which consists of a rail line between Birmingham and Manchester, and another between Birmingham and Leeds, will cost £24.4 billion, and won’t be fully operational until 2033 at the earliest.

The rolling-stock, which will theoretically be capable of travelling at speeds of up to 250mph, will cost another £7 billion.

So far, so very impressive. By 2033, according to the DfT (Department for Transport), travellers will be able to get from London to Derby a whole 20 minutes more quickly than they can at present. The journey time between London and Preston will – so they say – be slashed by around an hour.

People travelling from Birmingham will be able – allegedly – to get to Manchester airport in 32 minutes, whereas the current journey time is an hour and 44 minutes. Quite how many people from Birmingham, which has a perfectly good international airport of its own, will want to travel to Manchester airport doesn’t seem to have been addressed.

Back in 2015, the then coalition government said it planned to invest £70 billion in “all forms of transport by 2021”. Of that total, £16 billion would be invested in HS2. That HS2 figure has now risen to £56 billion – in just two years – and, according to some experts, the final bill could be more than £100 billion. Even if you accept the DfT’s figure of £56 billion (difficult given the rapidly rising estimates), that works out at more than £200 million per mile.

Who will operate the trains?
So much for the detail. The key thing that hasn’t been addressed, in my view, is who is going to operate the trains, and what will the fares be?

One hopes that when HS2 is up and running, the government will want to make some sort of return on its investment. Under the current system, one train operating company will be charged the earth for the privilege of operating services but – initially at least – for just a single London-Birmingham operation.

High-speed trains work – and work really well – over long, uninterrupted distances. Japan’s shinkansen, the so-called bullet train, was launched in 1964 to link Tokyo with Osaka, a distance of 320 miles, slightly more than the distance from London’s St Pancras to Paris’ Gare du Nord.

Like Eurostar, the bullet train operates on separate tracks, so it doesn’t get stuck behind slower-moving trains, and makes the trip in less than three hours – but then it doesn’t have to stop at Crewe.

The point is that bullet train travel costs a lot more than Japan Rail’s standard services, just as France’s TGV tickets are substantially more expensive than those on SNCF’s more sedate  rail services.

Along with Eurostar, France’s TGV, Germany’s ICE, Spain’s AVE and others have a lot to offer business travellers. But whether HS2’s pledge to shave 20 minutes off the journey between London and Derby – or 30 minutes off London-Glasgow – is likely to make a big business travel difference remains to be seen.

Provided there are no leaves on the line, it is currently possible to make the 400-mile journey between London and Edinburgh in about four-and-a-half hours. The new HS2 line, it is claimed, will reduce that by 45 minutes.

How important is that going to be for the average travel manager or business traveller? We are told that a round-trip between London and Derby will be reduced (eventually) by 40 minutes. With the best will in the world, what can a business traveller really achieve in that 20 minutes saved each way?

Down the line (pun intended), a London-Edinburgh round-trip will still take seven-and-a-half hours. Add in a meeting or two plus travel times to and from Euston and Waverley, and you’re still likely to need a hotel room to stay overnight.

And that’s without factoring in ‘earlier’ signal and points failures, the wrong kind of snow, unavailability of staff, and those notorious leaves…

Cost and convenience
From the travel buyer’s perspective, it comes down to two considerations – cost and convenience. Neither has been addressed, despite business travel’s proven contribution to the UK’s GDP.

One does have to wonder whether £56 billion – and, possibly, more than £100 billion – couldn’t have been better spent.

  • Do you think HS2 will make a major difference to the UK’s domestic rail system or is it a “white elephant”?


HS2 saves 1hr each way anywhere north of Birmingham (ie 2hrs more time at your destination for any return trip to Scotland, Newcastle, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield or York).
But to Birmingham, CAPACITY is the more important benefit (and less price pressure on fares).

Without these new 1,100 seater trains running up to 18 times/hr each way there won't be seats for half the intercity passengers by 2025 (according to official data). HALF the passengers to Birmingham would have to STAND ALL THE WAY by 2025.

HS2 also frees up our existing lines (its a cheaper way to upgrade them than widening them). Each intercity moved to HS2 frees up the WCML, ECML & Midland Mainline to take FOUR extra commuter trains to the 100 towns along those existing lines - as right now each intercity gets in the way of FOUR commuter trains (as each one uses FOUR slow train paths).

When we build the motorways, we didn't "upgrade" or widen existing roads. We bypassed towns with new roads for long distance traffic. That's what HS2 does. It moves long distance traffic off the existing lines and creates room on them for more slow trains between each town or into each city.

Whilst the halved journey times to Manchester, Leeds, York or Sheffield matter, the main benefit of these 2 extra tracks will be to add the capacity that keeps future rail fares from rocketing - as demand outstrips supply.

John Jefkins's picture
John Jefkins (not verified)

So JJ you agree with Mr will cost what it will cost...Money no object? Presumably you would not like to see a review of the project in the light of the claims that the total cost is now likely to be £111bn or £400 m per mile?

Tony Mellors's picture
Tony Mellors (not verified)
More than 85% of the UK public DO NOT WANT HS2. There is and never has been a need for it as even the Govt have admitted at times as new Signalling more carriage's & longer platforms at a small fraction of the cost will increase capacity into the late 2040's By then Rail Travel may well not be needed for work as the Internet improves & as now more companies do not need workers in offices but in contact by the Internet.
The above ide of a Hyperloop from West to East IS A 21st Century solution and put the UK and the North in the Vanguard of New Technology not like HS2 a 19th Century regurgitation.
The North get nothing from HS2 except to become Dormitories for London and the Talent of the North going South. Spain has proved this.
Finally you cannot believe any figures or assertions from HS2 or the Govt over HS2 as they have time and time again been found out as Lies or Misinformation.
Can we as a Country with ALL our Essential Services struggling afford £104BILLION?

Peter Deeley's picture
Peter Deeley (not verified)

What is absolutely clear is that the actual reason for building HS2 is none of the reasons put forward for doing so (none of which holds water). This is lying to the country, and to those affected by the scheme, on a scale unmatched by anything since the decision to go to war with Saddam Hussein. It is a conspicuous instance of post-truth politics.

In forcing it through, the government has ridden roughshod over local communities. The democratic process has conspicuously failed, ignoring the rights and interests of individuals, businesses and communities in a case where these were and are obvious. Rational objection to the scheme, as a whole and in its impact on Camden, from many people well qualified to make it, has simply been ignored by government and by the select committees of both the Commons and the Lords..

As democrats and citizens, we are right to be worried and angry. It is a conspiracy by government against the people. There is no popular support for HS2 and no rational case for it. It is a ludicrously expensive, almost entirely useless, destructive white elephant. In imposing the scheme, Parliament has corroded the standards of proper government.

All we can do is to keep telling the truth. I am convinced that HS2 will come to haunt future governments in the way that Iraq has haunted Tony Blair. That HS2 is still supported by all parties except the Greens is an extraordinary condemnation of our current political system.

Martin Sheppard, London NW1

Martin Sheppard's picture
Martin Sheppard (not verified)

The trains HS2 is proposing to buy will not do 250mph. That would require the replacement of the proposed 225mph trains, costing a further £10bn+, but they would only save one minute on a journey to Birmingham. There are no coated proposals that would achieve a journey to Derby in the time stated. This would require a change of trains at Toton which would add at least 10 minutes and a trek over a bridge to trains that do not exist. The government refuses to publish information which is essential to see how much of the business case is fiction.

John M's picture
John M (not verified)

The HS2 project certainly a obsrne waste of money. That money (taxpayer money) should be invest to improve the NHS and Education.across the country. HS2 is a White Elephant filled with lot of shit.

RAMON PERRUOLO (not verified)

The Colne Valley forms the boundary of London to the West and provides 22% of London's fresh drinking water, we have good quality fishing lakes, nature reserves, wet woodlands which provide fresh air and oxygen and tourism and leisure activities. All set to be devastated by HS2 as the sacrifice zone for the tunnel spoil from London tunnels, work compounds, electricity sub-stations, auto feeder stations, haul roads and access roads. The cost to the water industry and people's health has not been included in the cost/benefit analysis. Stop HS2 now and save Colne Valley.

Sarah Green's picture
Sarah Green (not verified)

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