If you listen to HS2’s objectors, you hear eight bad arguments against the project – here is why I think each of them is wrong

We have a dialogue of the deaf. HS2 objectors keep objecting, repeating the same objections over and over again; and the government – there are no other visible supporters – ignores the objections and repeats its message over and over again.

So I, a supporter, am going to try to be different. I am going to take each objection, look at it, recognise any good points made, and see if the objection stacks up – most don’t. If you think I am wrong, let me know; email address at the end.

As it is a big subject, I will do it in bits. After this article, there will be more to come.

 

Objection 1: That rail demand won’t grow fast enough and the trains will be empty.

A BAD ARGUMENT.

Yes, the national travel survey does show that ‘All Modes’ travel has plateaued and ‘All Modes’ business travel is indeed down 18% from five years ago (see Figure 1). You might argue therefore that people have stopped wanting to travel more and the growth in rail demand which we are now seeing will peter out.

I think that is a fair statement of the objection.

 

BUT…

A better explanation is “Peak Car”. It is car use, the largest component of All Modes travel, that has plateaued, and the most likely explanation is the huge rise in the cost of petrol (see Figure 2) coupled with roads being full. Petrol prices push people onto the train. People have not, as claimed, given up their wish to travel.

 

The fall in business travel is more interesting. Email, video conferencing and IT generally (ICT, Information and Communication Technology) is recognised to be a factor in this decline, but the cost of petrol and the recession are also factors. It is something to watch.

One thing the objectors never mention: population growth. The forecast is for nine million more people in England by the time HS2 is finished in 2037, a rise of 16% from 53.5 million to 62.2 million (see Figure 3) with another eight million by 2070. To cope with this, all sorts of things are going to have to be built: houses, hospitals, prisons probably, and railways. Roads would help, but we will not be building any more of these.

 

Where does this leave us?

The factors causing car use to plateau do not apply to rail. Long distance rail travel continues to grow and has done so through the recession (see Figure 4). It is growing at about 4.8% per annum. GDP will grow, hopefully at 2.5%, but who knows exactly. The population is growing at 0.6% pa. We are not building any more roads. Put all this together and the 2.2% pa growth in rail demand assumed in the HS2 business case seems pretty reasonable. It is very hard to see it being less.

 

One other point. One of the oldest and most and reliable transport ratios, going back 100 years or more, is that people, on a very broad average, spend 60 minutes a day travelling. As the years go by, you find that people cover more miles, but that is because transport improves and their travel gets faster. Richer people travel further but that is because they chose faster means of travel, air for example, but they still average no more than 60 minutes a day. With this in mind, Peak Car is understandable. The roads are not getting faster, so no more miles are covered. But on the railway it is different. As rail journeys get faster, people will take advantage and travel further – subject of course to the 60-minute per day limit.

So HS2, which massively reduces journey times from large cities to large cities (which are well within a two-hour boundary), will see a great deal of increased travel.

 

Objection 2: That we don’t need HS2’s capacity because Virgin WCML trains are running with plenty empty seats in the peak.

A GOOD POINT, BUT IT ONLY TAKES YOU SO FAR.

Yes, the Virgin WCML load factor at Euston in the peak is not too high and there are spare seats for future growth. London Midland trains, also running on the WCML, though now full and standing will shortly get 13% mores seats with their new trains. The Chiltern line to Birmingham has spare capacity.

It sounds like a good argument, and I want to come back to it in detail in a later article, but it only takes you so far.

Why?

It is extremely unlikely that the spare capacity, plus any extra which can be added, would not be fully used up by growth well before the Y of HS2 is finished.

The WCML track is in a fragile state: it is heavily used; it is the most congested mixed use, four-track line in the world; maintaining it is difficult and its punctuality is suffering. These problems are not easily solved, even with money. I would not think you would want to be relying it alone in 25 years’ time.

Finally, loading the WCML to the gunnels and cancelling HS2 does not give you the other benefits of HS2: use of the released capacity and travel time savings on the high speed line.

 

Objection 3: That the environmental damage to the Chilterns and the disruption to residents around Euston are so bad that we should abandon this project.

Yes, there is damage and disruption and, yes, the project has to be properly justified. But remember, if a third runway is built at Heathrow and aircraft numbers rise, a lot of people, including me, will suffer worse. These things happen.

 

Objection 4: HS2 won’t release much useful rail service capacity around Birmingham, Manchester or Leeds.

BAD ARGUMENT – NOT TRUE.

Yes, many of the long distance trains now running will continue to run – as the literature fully recognises – but HS2 will allow a change to their stopping pattern. They can become new Fast Regional or Regional Stoppers and many places will see an improved train service. Calculations in the KPMG report show substantial increases in regional connectivity arising from these new services.

The details are important so, again, to be addressed in a later article.

 

Objection 5: That HS2 won’t benefit the North.

A BAD ARGUMENT.

The argument appears in various forms:

First, the zero sum argument: that any growth around HS2 stations will be at the expense of growth elsewhere in the region.

Initially yes, as you would expect. The first businesses to invest around a new station will be those already thinking of investing in the region so, initially, zero sum. But over time, the whole region has the chance to become more productive. The French city of Lille has always been used as an example of zero sum but the work of Peter Hall suggests that this is not so.

Second, the Ashford, Ebbsfleet argument: that the HS1 stations have not helped them much – “not visible to the naked eye”.

Ok, but you should not have expected HS1 to have helped very much. Connectivity means a connection to something, labour or some other businesses, not a station in a field. Properly understood, HS1 did not greatly add to the connectivity of Ashford or Ebbsfleet.

Besides, there was a bit of bad luck. The recession came along and the Olympic-driven Stratford development got under way so the plans for Ashford and Ebbsfleet got cancelled.

Third, the satellites always lose argument: that if you speed up travel from a satellite town to a capital city, benefits either do not exist or accrue to the capital. The HS2 Action Alliance, which opposes the project, quotes professors Mackie, Tomaney, Overman and Vickerman all saying versions of the same thing.

There is obviously a point here, but the objectors think it applies everywhere in all circumstances. They would use it to argue that electrifying the Great Western line to Bristol and Cardiff is going to be bad for these cities. I would have thought this was nonsense. Am I wrong?

You have to look at each situation. The key is the size of the two places and their relative competitiveness, or as the economist Tim Leunig (not by any means an HS2 supporter) put it: connection matters if two places are complementary or if one of them is constrained in its size and has no room or resources to grow (eg., in my view, London).

Seville-Madrid is an example often used by the objectors. Yes, Seville, does seem to have suffered from the Spanish high speed line from Madrid. But Seville-Madrid is very different from Manchester-London.

Seville is a sleepy city of 700,000 people on an empty plain on the western edge of Europe with few competitive advantages except tourism. Madrid, the capital, has no labour shortage, no land shortage and no stratospheric house prices. What do you expect?

Manchester, on the other hand, is a very large industrial and service-based city, its region has a population of 2.6 million, it has labour and land, plus universities and skills. London is the very opposite of Madrid: very high costs, a shortage of land and labour and a crippling shortage of housing.

Put another way, the South East is overheating. Connecting it to other large but not overheating cities would seem to make a lot of sense.

This is all summed up brilliantly in a recent article in The Sunday Times about IT start ups. The geeks are saying: You get lost in London. It’s expensive. Birmingham is a good place to be, to try things out and learn from mistakes. The planned HS2 high-speed line can’t come fast enough.

Fourth, the high speed lines in other countries are often failures argument.

I have looked at the examples given and I am not surprised. Many of them seem to be social services aimed at bringing remote under-populated places into the mainstream.

Take the TGV Atlantique, down to Le Mans, Rennes, Nantes and Bordeaux. On the most optimistic basis, adding the population of the four cities together, you get a measly 1.2 million people; add in their regions and the figure rises to just 3.6 million people. This would be fine if the people were all in one place but they are not, the cities are very far apart, spread over 300 miles. It is inevitable that a high speed line is going to be empty.

Now compare that to the cities served by HS2. They are close together, spread over just 100 miles. They have large existing populations. The city populations add to 3.7 million and the region populations to 11.4 million (see table below), vastly more than TGV Atlantique. True, they already have quite good transport but, as building blocks able to take advantage of higher speed travel, they are in a different league.

So, where does that get us? Will HS2 help the Midlands and the North? Will it help Manchester? Basically, it depends on whether Manchester has competitive advantages vis-a-vis London. If it did not, then it wouldlose out. But it does. Most crudely it has very sharp cost advantages and it has the raw material for growth: a large, existing service sector and a knowledge economy.

HS2 will not be painless for the north. There will be change and some disruption. Some high value activities will move to London, but London things will move north. Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds in competing with each other will drop some activities and focus on others. It will not benefit everyone: people without skills will lose out. But, as the Centre for the Cities spokesman said this morning, “Birmingham is not competing with London, it is competing with Barcelona”. Rapid access to the specialisations available in London must be an advantage. Anyway, Birmingham, being effectively the hub of the new network, is going to be a very big winner.

 

Objection 6: That there are better ways to improve transport in the North than HS2.

BAD ARGUMENT.

OK, this is possibly true in the short term, but no one has come up with anything concrete and plausible that addresses long term growth and delivers the same connectivity improvement.

Perhaps there could be another way to relieve crowding on the London ends of the major rail routes (eg Crossrail 2, 3 and 4) but if we did just that, we would further cement in the position of London.

 

Objection 7: The Business Case is weak.

BAD ARGUMENT.

You can chip away at the edges if you want, but a benefit cost ratio of 2.3 (with wider economic benefits, which will happen) for a large project is good.

Obviously small projects – road by-passes and suchlike – can have higher BCRs but such projects are always on the margin. You can’t build a network out of by-passes: something has to join them up. By their nature, very large projects don’t have high BCRs, but they sometimes have to be done.

Some argue that the value put on time saved – a large part of the total benefits – is bogus. People work on trains. Yes of course they do, but I cannot believe that the average business would not, if it could, spend £32 to have its staff spend an hour less on the train.

 

Objection 8: That, in the words of the HS2 Action Alliance, there is a “desperate attempt by the government to spin the report by KPMG which claimed HS2 would generate £15bn a year of wider economic benefits. Its conclusions were widely mocked by academics and commentators as lacking credibility with it being pointed out that if the report’s figures were correct there would be £1,000 worth of benefit to the economy for every extra journey created by HS2.”

BAD ARGUMENT.

The £15bn a year figure is entirely plausible and the HS2 Action Alliance is talking tosh and is deliberately misunderstanding the KPMG work, or they are very dim. Indeed, that so many economists object or sit painfully on the fence, given their record on other things, is a source of great encouragement.

This, however, is for another article.

 

The big picture on investment

HS2 is the latest in a line of major – and essential – transport projects

It is crackers to think, looking 25 years ahead, that we do not need to build HS2 – or something very like it. What world are the objectors living in, some rural idyll or mental cocoon? Is the world kept at bay by a Star Wars force field? London and the South East is overheating. Have they noticed that average house prices in Birmingham are £155,000 and in London are £450,000 and heading to £650,000, or something like it, by 2020? Have they noticed that the Office of National Statistics is talking of England having nine million more people in 25 years’ time and 70 million by 2070? Do they think we can rely for the Northern Cities on alternative but unspecified improvements to local transport and for London on Crossrail 2 and probably 3 and 4 and 5 till London goes pop?

Nick Clegg put it well, “if London is to remain a world class city, we need HS2”. And the Northern Cities need it too.

Look at it this way.

In the last 50 years we have kept ahead of the rising demand for travel only because we have carried out a series of huge projects (see the graph below).

 

In the ‘60s and ‘70s we built 1,000 miles of motorways. A huge project.

We built the Victoria Line and the Jubilee Line and the Docklands Light Railway. Huge projects.

We built the Channel tunnel and the Channel Tunnel Rail link. Huge projects.

We are now half way through Thameslink. A huge project to massively transform London north-south travel.

We are underway with Crossrail and with electrifying to Reading and Cardiff. Another massive, £20bn project to transform East-West travel.

So what do we do now? Do we say, “That’s enough, we are stopping now”? The spare seats on Virgin Trains and a bit more infrastructure – mostly unspecified – will do the job?

Of course we are not entirely stopping, there is the Northern Hub. But comparatively this is a tiny scheme. Its budget is £690m. This is LESS than what has been spent on remodelling Reading Station.

We need a proper project to address long distance North-South travel and better to connect together the cities of the Midlands and North. Hence HS2, which is not mainly about capacity or mainly about speed. It is both.

 

Do you agree? Email george.muir [at] passengertransport.co.uk


This article, and many others, appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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