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In the first of ICE’s Insight papers, which aim to offer a more in-depth view about relevant issues or projects, the case for major transport project High Speed Rail Two is considered, with a view to better understanding how it came to be, and what challenges it's trying to solve.
The paper considers five potential alternatives to deliver the project, with the views of ICE Fellows having been sought to develop these. The alternatives include termination of the line outside London, upgrades to existing lines, potential changes to the route, reducing the speed of the line and alternative technologies.
In addition to the announcement of a delay to HS2, ICE’s insights paper also comes as a wide-ranging government review led by Douglas Oakervee, a former HS2 chairman, into “whether and how to proceed” is being progressed. It's expected that this will conclude by the end of the year.
Regardless, now is certainly an appropriate time to take stock.
The project is not just about speed. A common complaint is that the project will only deliver a 30-minute reduction in journey time between London and Birmingham for a disproportionate cost.
However, the far more important concern is capacity. Between 1997 and 2013, London and the South East had an average passenger growth of 102% while Milton Keynes and Northampton experienced 120% passenger growth. This is expected to double again by 2043.
The existing West Coast Mainline has served the UK well, but it's one of the busiest mixed speed tracks in Europe. As a Victorian infrastructure asset, it can only be upgraded so far and be filled to capacity for so long without relief.
A new dedicated line for long-distance intercity services will allow for greater capacity to be shared between the lines – and for existing mainlines to provide more freight and commuter services, improving connectivity and providing more seats at rush hours.
A high-speed rail link between north and south would also make it more attractive to live and work elsewhere in the UK, aiding redistribution of wealth across the country, as more people will be within a more straightforward commute of multiple centres of economic activity.
Environmental and community concerns could be alleviated if the route is changed or tunnelling increased, however, this would cost more to deliver.