Mystery Buyer: the value of HS2?

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”?

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