Monday, 28 April 2014

Why MPs should back HS2 today

All about London? A possible departure board at Birmingham Curzon Street after both phases of HS2 are completed. Image: Birmingham City Council
Four key questions answered:

Will the project benefit the north, the south or both?

Both. Much attention has been focussed on the notion that the project might 'suck business activity from the north towards London', yet there is in reality no consensus on these effects, not least because there can be no direct comparison between the UK's economic geography and that of any other country. Taken to its logical conclusion, the notion of London 'winning out' from HS2 would imply that those cities with inferior connectivity with the capital would somehow be insulated from these negative effects. That rather contorted argument has been put firmly in context by the recent campaign to restore rail links between London and southwest England – there were few suggestions that rebuilding the railway through Dawlish might somehow drain the economy of Devon and Cornwall.

The lessons from the 17 000 km of high speed railway in use internationally show that few if any cities claim to have been damaged by being connected to the network. In some locations the high speed railway has acted as a catalyst for regeneration or reorientation of a local economy, and there is emerging evidence from the world’s largest high speed experiment, China, that smaller cities are benefitting as pressure mounts on overheating metropolises.

Do we need more rail capacity?

Unequivocally yes. Rail capacity, like air capacity, is defined by the ability of the network to handle more vehicle movements. That capacity no longer exists for rail services to be introduced between London, Blackpool, Shrewsbury and so forth, which is comparable to issues facing London Heathrow airport with its shortage of landing slots. More than £10bn has been spent on refurbishing the West Coast Main Line in the past 15 years, yet much of the capacity gains this programme anticipated have proved illusory. Particularly damaging are the cuts to local trains and station closures which have been made to accommodate more fast trains to London.

The legacy rail network has become more London-centric in the past decade as more high-yield long-distance trains have been introduced, but this has come at the expense of intermediate towns and smaller cities. HS2 is an opportunity to move a sizeable proportion of inter-city traffic to dedicated infrastructure, liberating the conventional network. However, this is not a simple or straightforward process, and reallocating the capacity released by HS2 is one of the biggest tasks facing rail network planners.

What are the viable alternatives, if any?

The main alternative is further incremental upgrading of the three main north-south rail axes. Investment in lines which don't go to London is a tougher proposition -- none of the groups opposed to HS2 have to my knowledge proposed significant spending on links between Birmingham and northern England, which is one of the most underappreciated assets of the HS2 plans. Upgrading of busy conventional railways, as the West Coast Main Line renewal proved beyond doubt, would cost many billions of pounds per corridor, for capacity gains which are at best uncertain.

Reliability of upgraded railways is also in doubt, since the fabric of the infrastructure (bridges, tunnels, embankments) cannot meaningfully be updated. The WCML, despite the near £10bn investment since 1998, is the least reliable route in the UK, as evidenced by industry punctuality figures, with the King's Cross - Edinburgh line not far behind. Both would benefit from HS2 taking some of the strain. This issue is of course highly nuanced – nobody is suggesting that enhancements to the existing railway should not happen, but rather that they are least effective where the capacity shortfall is greatest and the 19th century network is at its most fragile.

What are the economic benefits?

In short railway investment of any kind brings wider economic and social benefits -- if we as a nation did not collectively believe this, we would not provide the level of funding for the whole network that we do. Rail is a vector of economic activity, trade and tertiary industry (the impact of weekend rail disruption on the service economy has not been quantified for example -- perhaps it should be). HS2's main economic benefits are transport related: primarily capacity, but also speed and reliability. Compare the reliability of HS1 in Kent to any other part of the network and the resilience of new infrastructure is immediately apparent.

In certain locations we can expect HS2 to act as a catalyst for development of business and residential zones; more generally, we should expect inward investors to view the country beyond London as a more appealing place in which to develop their activities.

HS2 should also deliver on improving labour market connectivity and productivity. I expect this to be most apparent not on London journeys, but on routes like Birmingham - Newcastle, which would be 55 min quicker by rail under HS2 than at present, with trains potentially running every 30 min. Sir David Higgins’ recent ‘HS2 Plus’ report goes some way to striking the right balance between links to/from the capital and those between regions, within the context that London is the origin or destination of two-thirds of British rail journeys.

Moreover, MPs should ask themselves if they feel 'patch and mend' infrastructure is good enough for our largest regional cities, while London's rail network luxuriates in more than £20bn of capital investment in the 2008-18 period, excluding spending on London Underground.

By that measure, we can certainly afford HS2. There is no option to simply spend £43bn on ‘other stuff’. MPs should back infrastructure investment which is internationally-standard, proven and safe when they vote. HS2 must be built.

This post is based on answers supplied to Sanderson Weatherall for their HS2 blog post, which appears here.

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