In Defence of the Elephant

Large infrastructure programmes have always had their enemies and HS2 is no exception. The race for a new Prime Minister has once again thrust the project into the limelight, with critics and advocates once again fighting over its future. The government has taken a back seat accepting the project’s future might not be as certain as first thought. StopHS2 and the Taxpayer’s Alliance are trying everything to shoot it dead. Leadership contenders and backbench MPs alike are deriding it as yet another “white elephant”, an unnecessary display of extravagance built solely to benefit the media types who live in London but work in MediaCity. Here, I hope to add another voice to the debate; to defend a project that I believe is both misunderstood, and is too easily seen as a target from which to grab cash.

What’s in a name?

When asked to describe what HS2 is, you might describe it as a new high speed railway running north-south across England. You’d be right. With direct city to city trains running at up to 225mph, the UK could finally have a rail network that could compete with our continental neighbours. Forecast journey times see a cut of half an hour for London to Birmingham, and approximately an hour for trains to Manchester and to Leeds. In most cases, these services will run direct into city centres. Others will be out-of city parkways such as Toton in the East Midlands – though even Toton will have speedy 10min direct journeys into both Derby and Nottingham.

Faster trains have their benefits. They help to put rail on an equal footing with air travel, improving journeys and helping the environment at the same time – as the Eurostar proves. They mean spending less time stuck on a train and more time out and about doing the things that you want. They help motorists make that final shift from long-distance drives to catching the train.

Fast trains are not without their critics. There are cries of HS2 being London-centric by making journeys to and from the capital faster but I’d argue this isn’t a problem. If anything, making the core cities more accessible from the capital improves their attractiveness for prospective residents and businesses, helping to balance the economy northwards. HS2 isn’t London-only either, with some southbound services terminating at Birmingham as well as being intended to support east-west services across the north.

Despite its name, and the speed benefits that it’ll deliver, speed is not the critical aspect of the project. For this, we must look at capacity. British railways are at the limit of what they can achieve with existing technology, and managing passenger numbers is no longer a question of simply throwing more trains onto the same piece of track.

One plus one does not equal two

Existing British railway lines carry a variety of trains on the same tracks. The West Coast Main Line carries commuter, regional, intercity, and freight services. Each of these have their own trains running at their own speeds, with their own schedules, and their own stopping patterns. The result is a tension between the different train profiles that results in a lower capacity than would otherwise be the case. Now, let’s say you build a pair of tracks next to an existing pair. You’ve just doubled the capacity of the line, right? Wrong.

Let’s take an example of a simple railway between two cities with one track in each direction. There are fast trains that only stop at the terminals and slow trains that stop at intermediate stations too. As a result, the slow trains travel at a reduced speed, taking an hour to make a journey that the fast trains can do in 40 minutes. In order to maintain safety, trains have to be at least five minutes apart.

This means that the soonest a fast train can depart a terminal after a slow train is 25 minutes later, otherwise it will catch up and be blocked by the preceding slow train. Alternating slow and fast trains results in a maximum service of four trains per hour. In order to improve either of the two services, the other would have to be cut back.

  • Slow train departs 12:00 -> arrives 13:00
  • Fast train departs 12:25 -> arrives 13:05
  • Slow train departs 12:30 -> arrives 13:30
  • Fast train departs 12:55 -> arrives 13:35

Now, let’s add a second pair of tracks. The two services are no longer competing with each other so trains in front and behind can now travel at the same speed. As each train will always be the same distance apart, each line can have a new train every five minutes giving a round twelve trains per hour on each – a 600% increase in capacity.

In the case of HS2, the new intercity line doesn’t just relieve one railway but three; the WCML, MML, and ECML.

Of course, this is an extreme example to display how capacity constraints can be resolved. The reality is that the current mainlines will likely retain some of their intercity services when HS2 is finished, but that these will be rationalised, particularly given the politically difficulty in withdrawing existing direct connections. Instead, we can expect consistent stopping patterns throughout the day, as well as a few extra stops for existing intercity services to better connect regional centres and the average speeds of the current fastest trains down a little. This won’t allow a capacity uplift of the extent laid out above, but it will still be significant as HS2’s own figures show (in evening peak seats):

  • Euston: 12,100 -> 31,200 (+157%)
  • Manchester Piccadilly via Crewe/Stoke: 3,490 -> 8,620 (+146%)
  • Leeds via Doncaster: 1,720 -> 4,860 (+183%)

Most of the speed benefits will therefore be constrained to those living in or near the core HS2 stops, as well as a few regional stops that will gain from regularly intercity services stopping where they don’t currently. Current intercity stops between the major cities are the only places that will likely suffer a time penalty and this will be marginal at best. In most cases, the average journey time will still shrink – where average wait times will reduce by more than the journey time increase. But it is the substantial capacity improvements at all stations across existing long-distance routes that are the critical benefit here. More intercity services, more regional services, more commuter services, more freight services, new direct routes – the possibilities here are not to be understated.

A New Backbone

The benefits of a new rail line are not limited to speed and capacity either. By separating the fastest services from slower ones, punctuality and resilience of the railway as a whole will be improved too. Trains will be less likely to be held at a red signal in order to give way to a train of a different type, and of higher priority, when one or the other is delayed. Furthermore, incidents that cause delays to services on one of the existing core north-south routes will be mitigated by the provision of a secondary high-speed key artery through which to divert passengers (and in a few cases, trains). This is before even discussing the far greater length and width of HS2 trains, not only pushing capacity even further, but also creating a far more comfortable atmosphere for passengers – think domestic Eurostar. HS2 will also create a two-tier intercity network of trains, and as seen already on Birmingham-London services, competition drives higher customer service and lower prices.

There’s also the unquantified benefits that a programme like this will deliver. A scale of investment such as HS2 is acting as a catalyst, not just for the rail industry, but for city development as well. Take a browse through the draft masterplans of Old Oak, Curzon Street, and Toton and you’ll see what I mean. HS2 is the key that allows thousands of much needed homes, businesses, and jobs to be created – and not just in London. It’s also a requirement if we are to have any further investment programmes in the railway. More trains, more direct connections, more freight by rail, all have HS2 as a prerequisite. Northern Powerhouse Rail taps into it too.

Back to the Elephant

Of course this doesn’t come cheap. As it currently stands, HS2 has an official budget of £55.7bn (2015 terms). This is higher than the original £33bn allocation and lower than the £70-90bn figures that some analysts think the final cost will be. Comments on cost overruns and project mismanagements are already appearing in the media but I’d argue this isn’t enough to warrant scrapping the programme. Crossrail has overrun on both time and budget. So did the Edinburgh trams extension. So did the Channel Tunnel. The list can go on and on but these projects still had their merits.

Of course the design is not perfect. The speed of the trains may be a little too ambitious in that costs grow exponentially over a certain threshold. The route may have been more beneficial and cheaper had it been via the M1 rather than the Chilterns. Running high speed lines around the existing network rather than standalone could have provided greater connectivity. But this is the HS2 we have, not some other option that we’d like to have. Land purchases have already been made, and the diggers are on the ground. We are now past the point of major design alterations and have to decide whether to kill it or cherish it. If we kill it, then what? I don’t believe we’ve ever had a government ambitious enough to kill a project of this magnitude only to carry it out with a different design. Opponents are strong enough such that if we kill it, that’s it. British high speed rail will be dead. But only for a few decades when yet again we’ll ask why we don’t have high speed rail and come up with yet another, likely-to-be-derided as a “white elephant”, project to build.

Then there are the Elon Musk’s of this world who believe electric driverless cars are the future. Don’t get me wrong, I think cars are here to stay – if you’re going to have one, might as well make it driverless, electric, and share the ownership. But cars will never compete with public transport because, put simply, a bus carries 50 people and a train can carry hundreds. Most cars on the road? Not even two. And when you automate and electrify the trains too, it’s a no-brainer.

There are also those who advocate for piecemeal upgrading of the railways. For instance adding new tracks alongside existing lines. Not only will this take longer than building a new line in one go, but it’s more costly too, causing disruption for well over a decade to all three core north-south lines, and requiring land purchasing – not of open fields, but of the homes and gardens that back onto existing lines. This may deliver some, maybe even most, of the HS2 capacity benefits, but it won’t be high speed, it won’t provide alternative routes; and all for a higher cost and at a later date. If we want to upgrade our railways, it has to be through a step-change.

The cost of HS2 could double and I would still defend this programme. Why? Because it is needed. If we don’t build it then we can say goodbye to further growth in rail numbers and hello to stagnation, more pollution, and more congestion. £55bn is a lot of money, but 2032 is a long way off – through until then the project will work at around £4.3bn a year.

That’s £4.3bn a year to catapult our transport network ahead of our European neighbours when we are currently lagging by decades. £4.3bn a year to provide a step-change improvement in the connectivity, speed, and reliability of our rail network. £4.3bn a year to provide thousands of high-value construction jobs, and to catalyse investment and regeneration around gleaming new stations. £4.3bn a year to move people out of polluting planes and cars and onto the cleanest public transport around. And after those 13 years of funding construction, it’s here to stay for decades, if not centuries, to come. Money well spent. Money that Mayors, Councils, and Transport Bodies across both the north and the south agree should be spent.

There were complaints when the Victorians had ambitious construction programmes and there are complaints again today. But those Victorian constructs still stand strong providing the backbone of Britain, even today.

I say, let the Elephant live.

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