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The future of rail? Insights into High Speed Two

04 September 2019

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 future of rail? Insights into High Speed Two
HS2 construction site in Birmingham. Image credit: HS2

Following confirmation from the government that High Speed Two (HS2) is to be delayed for up to five years, ICE has published an insights paper. It revisits the potential benefits, the needs case and the current status of the project, including concerns around delivery and opposition to it.

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.

Government review

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.

Capacity, not speed

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.

Is HS2 up to task?

While ICE’s insights paper doesn’t make policy recommendations, it considers concerns around the project and potential alternatives.

As ICE’s paper on cost estimates and outturns found, most major projects go over budget and estimates are notoriously hard to make early on in a project's lifetime. However, it's vitally important that long-term benefits, not just costs, drive the business case.

Of more concern is the reliance on unrealised efficiency savings in the budget for the project. While efficiencies are desirable and should be sought, relying on these being delivered is a high-risk strategy.

There are clearer benefits for the environment and for regional redistribution.

High-speed rail could form an important part of the decarbonisation of transport, with electrified rail cleaner than existing road and air transport.

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.


Every potential change to the project has a cost and benefit.

Terminating HS2 at Old Oak Common, on the Crossrail line to the west of central London, will save significant capital costs tunnelling into London. However, it will undermine connectivity as well as requiring Old Oak Common to be redesigned and expanded.

Reducing the speed of HS2 will again save some capital costs, but it will also mean lost productivity gains.

Environmental and community concerns could be alleviated if the route is changed or tunnelling increased, however, this would cost more to deliver.

Branching off

As the UK’s population expands, and the economy grows, there will be a greater need for all types of economic infrastructure.

For rail, this means examining where future capacity will be needed in the coming decades and how a new high speed – or other – rail link will be integrated into this system.

In the wake of the delay to HS2 and the ongoing review, ICE’s insights paper offers a compact resource for all stakeholders within an interest in the project to reacquaint themselves with the key issues.

Read the full paper

  • Martin Shapland, policy manager at ICE