I’ve written before about HS2, though not for some time. I still find people who don’t understand the basic problem with the scheme. The argument in favour seems to be: other countries have high speed rail, so we must have it too. It’s modern and with it and a sign of commitment to the future. It will rejuvenate the economies of the North, and spread London growth rates to Manchester and Sheffield. It will save twenty minutes on the London/Birmingham journey. It will provide more capacity.
Most of these arguments are spurious. Yes, it may save a few minutes off the journey time, but as has been widely pointed out, these days people can work on the train, so a few minutes here or there is no loss. Yes, it would provide more capacity — but there are much cheaper and less disruptive ways of doing that. No, it won’t rejuvenate the North — indeed there is a good case that it will simply exacerbate the North/South imbalance and bring business south to London, not tempt it North to Yorkshire and Lancashire. Thisd has been the typical experience in other countries.
But there’s an overarching point that has been largely ignored or poorly understood. There are fundamental geographical reasons why high speed rail is less appropriate in the UK than in, say, France. France has a similar population to the UK, but a land area well over twice as big. This means first of all that it is less densely developed, with a lower population density. So there is more spare land through which to build railway lines, and at lower cost. For the same length of route, we in the UK have to knock down more property, and inconvenience more local residents.
Secondly, with a lower population density, major cities in France are more widely spread, so there are longer distances between stations. It undermines the whole point of high speed rail if you still need to stop every thirty miles for the next town. In France you have long distances between cities, where high speed rail can show its advantages and deliver significant benefits. In the UK, either you stop more often. Or you fail to stop at intermediate cities, so the residents of those cities fail to benefit – but still face the all problems of noise and disruption and compulsory purchase.
A small, densely populated island like the UK simply doesn’t get the same benefits from high speed rail as a larger country with a less dense population, like the US or France.
Now we’re talking about a grandiose idea to connect Manchester and Sheffield across the Pennines, to create a “Northern Hub” to compete with London. Nothing wrong with that in principle. But the objective must be to deliver secure and affordable trans-Pennine transport, not to clip a couple of minutes off the journey times with a vastly expensive project.
Which brings us to the key argument against HS2: we certainly need new investment in transport infrastructure in the UK, but high speed rail is an absurdly expensive and inefficient way of doing it. The question is not “Would politicians like a new train set, a new prestige project?”, but “What is the best way to invest in transport infrastructure for Britain?”. It’s certainly not HS2.