15 reasons that HS2 is silly


I wrote this article at the beginning of last year on my personal Bruce Everiss blog. I am posting it here because, with the General Election approaching, this is a major Conservative vote loser. It could very easily decide the election with HS2 protest voters supporting UKIP (who oppose it) and thereby letting Labour win. This makes it one of the most important topics in Great Britain today.

The changes and edits I have made to the original article are in blue.

Britain is a relatively small and highly populated island with a high level of economic activity. So it needs a fit for purpose transport infrastructure, something that is largely provided by the state with the road system. Under the last, Labour, government there was a very low level of investment in this UK infrastructure, which has created many problems. So we need to catch up with a high level of investment. The HS2 high speed rail system forms part of this spend.

These 225mph trains would run initially to Birmingham, where the line splits in two with an East coast spur to Leeds and Newcastle and a West coast spur to Manchester and Scotland. It is estimated to cost a massive £30 billion. The Department for Transport now says it will cost £43 billion, a study by the Institute of Economic Affairs suggests a total cost of £80 billion.  And here is why it is silly:

1) The basic economic model to justify HS2 is that time spent on trains is wasted time. So if a businessman makes a journey 20 minutes faster that equates to 20 minutes less time wasted and thus 20 minutes more work done. Multiply this by the number of passengers and it is a lot. The planners who came up with this obviously don’t travel on trains full of business people because if they did then they would see that the business people are all working during their journey. Laptops and tablets are everywhere. So the time isn’t wasted.

2) The second rationale is that the centre (London) is too rich and that the regions are too poor. Bringing them closer together timewise is planned to even out the differences. The problem with this argument is that everywhere in the world that a high speed railway has been built the opposite happens. Wealth moves from the regions to the centre. It is easy to see why. A business is far more likely to use a London solicitor or a London accountant if these professionals become more accessible. And far more people will travel to London to shop. Apply this across all businesses and the wealth transfer to the centre becomes substantial.

3) Then there is the capacity argument. They say that rail usage has shot up in recent years and that it will continue to shoot up. But the reason usage shot up was that the railways had been nationalised for many years and so were utterly awful to use. When they were de-nationalised they steadily improved, so more people used them. However this increase in demand is not infinite and will level off. So we don’t need vast extra capacity.

4) Peak hour evening West Coast line trains currently leave Euston just 50% full. The first trains after the evening price drop are very full. So the existing capacity is being misapplied because of a distorting price mechanism which is presumably regulated by Ofrail.

5) Pendelino trains that run on the current West coast line were 9 carriages long. Many have been extended to 11 carriages long. They could make them longer still but would need to construct longer platforms. This would give extra capacity for a very low cost. Also a high percentage of carriages are given over to first class and mainly just ship air round the country, so lightly are they occupied. Converting all trains to single class would bring a huge, instant, increase in capacity.

6) The railway system in Britain is massively subsidised by the taxpayer. Yet its competitor, the car, is massively taxed. So there is something fundamentally wrong with the rail business model that it is not financially self supporting.

7) Pendelino train carriages are badly designed so have a very low passenger density. Part of this comes from the tilting mechanism robbing a lot of the internal volume. Part comes from the immense toilets taking away valuable seat rows. So extra capacity is available by using better designed trains.

8) HS2 runs mostly on a new, straight, route across the countryside. So building it will have an immense environmental impact. Huge drainage schemes will be required and building tunnels, cuttings and embankments in a great swathe means that the length of the country will be a mammoth building site.

9) Once the line is in operation it will create a wide corridor of very high levels of noise pollution. Something the size of a train traveling at 225mph violently rips a big hole in the air that is an order of magnitude louder than Pendolinos. The economic model for HS2 is for 14 trains an hour in each direction, rising to 18. So 36 trains an hour. Or one every 100 seconds. It is worth noting that no other high speed train in the world runs with such high frequency and that the short spacing between 225mph trains leaves very fine margins for error.

10) The government say this will cost £30 billion. But it won’t. Government is bad at running anything and especially bad at running big projects. The London Olympics were originally budgeted to cost £2.4 billion. They ended up costing at least £9.3 billion, a fourfold increase. The Typhoon fighter project for the RAF was originally budgeted to cost £7 billion, the latest figure is £37 billion and that is for less aircraft. A fivefold increase in cost. So you can bank on HS2 costing at least double what they say, which for every person in the UK is an average of about £1,000. Or about £2,000 per member of the workforce.

11) HS2 is highly redistributive of wealth from the poor to the rich. Whilst a rich couple in Birmingham will be able to pop down to London for an expensive meal and the theater they will be massively subsidised. By factory workers in Newcastle, by farm workers in Devon and by anyone else not using the service.

12) If better railways really are a good idea then much more can be achieved for far more people far more cheaply in far less time and with vastly less environmental impact by electrifying the Chiltern line and increasing the speed and capacity of the East Coast line, which was designed to run at 140mph but can’t because of a lack of investment in in cab signalling.

13) Once HS2 is operational the West Coast express trains on the existing lines will be replaced by slow, stopping trains. This will wipe out a huge part of the transport infrastructure for a lot of towns and cities. Places like Rugby and Coventry will be very badly hit because they will no longer be a viable London commute. Many other towns will have the hearts ripped out of them.

14) HS2 is Britain’s second high speed line. The first, HS1, runs to the channel tunnel. And passenger loads on this line are running at 30% less that the projections that were used to justify the line. In other words would it have even been viable to finance had they known how many passengers they would really have?

15) After the Labour under investment there are huge deficiencies in our transport infrastructure. The biggest is the lack of a high capacity hub airport in the South East. This is costing the UK economy very many billions of pounds every year. People are taking their business to other countries that do have this facility. We desperately need a 6 runway airport to be built in the Thames estuary. This would be cheaper than HS2 and a vastly better investment into the future of this country. A 6 runway airport would make Great Britain the transport hub for Europe and would bring enormous wealth and business to the country. Turkey realises this benefit and is building a 6 runway airport near Istanbul.

One final point. The argument against HS2 is not helped by rich NIMBYs driving round with “Stop HS2” stickers on the back of their Range Rovers. Fifty plus years of Labour politics of envy and BBC social conditioning mean we have here the highest levels of schadenfreude in Europe.

There are many high speed railway systems around the world and they are all bottomless money pits and they all move wealth from the regions to the centre. Great Britain will not be different.

Also physically moving people around the place is rapidly being replaced by technology. Meetings are held electronically. So a banker can be talking to his Hong Kong and Singapore teams in the morning and his New York and Chicago teams in the afternoon. Whilst sitting at home. This is vastly more efficient, so the transition is happening very quickly indeed, to the point that the need for business travel will decrease a lot. For social use there is Skype which allows people to chat to many different friends all over the world whilst sitting on the settee. HS2 will be largely obsolete before it is built.

In a modern transport infrastructure passenger trains are fantastic for one job and that is shipping vast numbers of commuters into city centres. Crossrail is a fantastic project and it should be followed by Crossrail 2 & 3. It would make a brilliant part of the infrastructure of a 6 runway Thames Estuary airport. This is how we should be spending money on transport.

The more you look at the facts the more ridiculous HS2 becomes. It needs cancelling immediately.

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