With the government tabling the latest High Speed 2 Bill in Parliament, ICE’s updated insight paper examines the status of the project and the debates around its potential benefits, costs and alternatives.
Increasing capacity on Britain’s railways is vital for meeting future passenger and freight demand and achieving the country’s long-term objectives.
The UK will not be able to rebalance its economy, boost productivity and quality of life across the country, or achieve net zero without enabling more people to take more journeys by train.
High Speed 2 (HS2) is a key element of the government’s vision for a future rail network that is able to meet these challenges.
Construction underway but the Y-network is scaled back
HS2 has been beset by delays and controversies over the past decade. This prompted a review led by Sir Douglas Oakervee in 2019 which concluded that on balance, the government should continue with the project.
Construction of phase one between London and Birmingham commenced in September 2020.
A further outcome from the Oakervee Review was the development of an Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) for the North and Midlands – which the government published last November, significantly scaling back the proposed HS2 Y-network.
While the western leg from Birmingham to Manchester will proceed, the eastern leg from Birmingham to Leeds was cancelled, at least for now, with a shorter route connecting Birmingham and East Midlands Parkway.
HS2 will be delivered in three phases, with the full network now scheduled to be operational sometime in the 2040s.
What benefits could HS2 bring?
Proponents of HS2 argue it will deliver essential extra capacity on Britain’s railways, with significant economic and environmental benefits that upgrades to existing lines alone could not achieve.
Passengers would enjoy shorter journey times, fewer delays, and less overcrowding, while there would be more capacity on existing lines for additional local and regional services as well as freight trains.
For instance, on the West Coast Main Line, which has no capacity for additional services without affecting performance, the impact would be substantial.
By improving connectivity, supporters argue HS2 will help deliver the vision the government recently set out in its Levelling Up White Paper - catalysing investment in the North and Midlands, enabling new skilled jobs located there, and boosting productivity and living standards.
With transportation being the largest carbon emitting sector in the UK, primarily from road transport, HS2 could also play an important role in enabling the shift of passengers and freight to rail, which is required to achieve net zero.
Is HS2 the right approach?
While most would concur that achieving these outcomes is necessary, not all agree that investing in new high speed rail lines is the best approach.
Critics have highlighted spiraling costs, timescale slippages and uncertainties in the wider policy environment to raise doubts about the case for HS2.
For instance, the Transport Committee has noted that a lack of definition or metrics for levelling up has made it difficult to direct transport investment and measure its effectiveness. The recent white paper only goes some way to providing this framework.
Others have cast doubt about HS2’s carbon-cutting potential or pointed to its detrimental impact on the landscape and wildlife habitats, although HS2 says this has been mitigated through measures including additional tunneling and a new green corridor along the route.
A range of alternative approaches to Britain’s rail capacity challenges have been proposed, which supporters argue would be more cost-effective.
These include a London terminus at Old Oak Common instead of Euston, reducing the high-speed specifications of the line, and focusing on upgrading existing lines with new digital technology, signalling and track improvements.
Do we still need HS2?
The Covid-19 pandemic, and its impact on travel patterns, has also given rise to the question of whether HS2 is still required.
Pre-pandemic trends on the West Coast Main Line suggested it would face significant additional pressure by mid-century – journeys on the line grew by 199% from the mid-1990s compared to 119% on the wider rail network.
ICE’s own research on the impact of Covid-19 suggests that much of the UK’s infrastructure will still be required to operate just as it did before the pandemic, and the underlying drivers will remain similar: a growing, ageing population, the need to decarbonise infrastructure, and addressing regional inequalities.
The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has also cautioned against making planning assumptions based on short-term trends and advised taking a long-term, adaptive approach based on a range of possible demand scenarios – advice the government argues it has followed in the IRP.
There is also evidence that the public places high value on reliability and punctuality which any future investment should aim to improve, while business organisations see value in HS2 for their members.
Construction of phase one of HS2 is well underway and the High Speed Rail (Crewe – Manchester) Bill has been presented in Parliament.
ICE will continue to engage with stakeholders around HS2, particularly through our work on the IRP, while we also await the government’s response to the Union Connectivity Review (UCR) and support the development of the Great British Railways Whole Industry Strategic Plan (WISP).
Our recent submission to the Transport Committee on the IRP expressed significant concerns about the choices made and whether the plan is ambitious enough or sufficiently robust to be deliverable, with key questions still outstanding.
Debates around HS2 will continue and there remains much work to be done to ensure it is integrated with a wider rail and transport system that delivers the network the public needs.