Why I remain opposed to HS2 – response to Ian Walmsley

The thrust of the article by Ian Walmsley in Modern Railways last month was that no one should challenge the validity of the HS2 Project because it is so patently obvious that it is the best thing to happen to the railways since the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway. I will, therefore, in this article which your editor has kindly invited me to write as a response, first address this overall contention and then look at more specific issues relating to the scheme as currently presented. I will confine my response to Walmsley’s juvenile insults to a brief paragraph at the end.

The notion that HS2 is so self-evidently a top priority to be built that we cannot even discuss doubts about it is clearly patent nonsense. This is a project whose cost is uncertain but will almost certainly exceed the £55bn currently earmarked given that Phase 2 has only been vaguely sketched out and £8bn of the £24bn cost of Phase 1 has been earmarked for the first six miles up from Euston, making it highly unlikely that the rest will only absorb £16bn. You only have to look at the recent rise of £1.5bn and delay of a year in cost of Hinckley Point, another controversial megaproject, to realise that there is only one direction for the estimates of HS2. So, let’s be relatively conservative and say that the total will be around £70bn by the time it opens. Surely, even the most fervent supporter of the scheme must accept that there are legitimate grounds for debate.

There are a lot of things that could be done with £70bn. The public debt is still rising fast, local authorities are being squeezed, the NHS is under unprecedented pressure, school budgets are being cut but Mr Walmsley reckons that HS2 should be sacrosanct and immune even from discussion. Of course many people in the industry support the scheme but a large proportion of them have a vested interest with billions worth of contracts at stake. Many more neutral observers with in depth knowledge of the industry are sceptical and as are large swathes of the population at large.

With good reason.  It is a fallacy to suggest that just because the idea of high speed railways is a good one for other nations, the UK must have one. We already have good frequent services linking London with the northern cities, which was not the case when France, a far bigger country, embarked on its LGV network. England is small compared with most nations which have built high speed lines and there are legitimate doubts that a standalone line, with very few connections to the rest of the network is the optimal solution. The work carried out by HSUK, who looked at the railway network as a whole and then attempted to fit in a high speed network that would deliver better journey times between virtually all major English cities seems to represent a far more coherent approach than HS2 Ltd’s efforts – which so far have already cost £1bn. It is much more akin to the German mix of high speed and improved conventional that has proved to be successful.

There may be a case for a high speed line but it has not been made in relation to this project.

Let’s look at the specifics. One of the most extraordinary aspects of this project is that there is no environmental case. It does not even pretend to get people out of their cars, let along attract air passengers but rather, the majority of journeys will either be generated by the line or be people transferring from classic lines. This is mobility for the sake of mobility, rather than accessibility, and does not make sense in world where climate change is the most pressing issue ever faced by the human race, one that threatens its very existence.

The most compelling argument against the project is that its objectives are unclear. It was originally tacked on to a Labour government announcement supporting the third runway at Heathrow and therefore was supposed to go there, but that was soon given up and instead its main reason was given as speeding up journeys to Birmingham (an argument that is no longer used). Now we have the need to boost capacity – when in fact Euston is nowhere near being London’s most overcrowded station and much of the demand is for commuting and regional traffic – and bridging the North South divide, the evidence for which is scant. Indeed, creating a Network SouthEast for the North, with high frequency electric trains running frequently and fast between the major cities would be far more beneficial for the local economy and cost a fraction of the bill for HS2.

Since Mr Walmsley suggested that only people with ulterior motives argue against the line, let’s now call in the heavyweights of the Lords Economic Affairs Committee who produced one of the best independent analyses of the project. After taking evidence from a wide range of witnesses, it reached damning conclusions, questioning the very basis of the project and raising a series of questions that the government had not answered. In particular, the committee found that the government had rejected alternatives to HS2 too easily without proper consideration, partly on the basis that they offered fewer extra seats. However, crucially, the committee suggested that there was no evidence that all the huge increase in capacity resulting from HS2 was necessary.

The committee also wanted to know amongst other issues how the government knew this was the best long term strategy in the absence of any overall transport plan, why the government has allowed ‘commercial confidentially’ to prevent the publication of detailed data on current demand on the West Coast, and whether there will be premium fares which have damped down demand  on HS1. It is, indeed, quite extraordinary that eight years and £1bn into the project, there are still basic issues like these that have not been properly explained.

The committee was also dismissive of the casual assumption that the line would definitely result in economic growth. While many rail lines do clearly act as a catalyst for growth, this is by no means always the case. Moreover, there is evidence that it is London that will benefit from the line, sucking in growth from the regions rather than the other way around.

There are many other specific objections. HS2 as currently designed has four stations that are broadly parkways – Birmingham International, Toton, Old Oak Common and probably Crewe– in that they are not huge destinations and will mostly require a car journey to reach, and five terminuses – Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham and London. Railway planners know that the most effective stations are through stations which therefore connect easily with many more destinations without changing train or mode.

Toton is my particular bugbear, a station half way between Nottingham and Derby with no purpose whatsoever. Services to the town centre of either of those places will be no faster than by the Midland Main Line and therefore it will be very little used. Travelling on the TGV in France, one flies past similar stations located in the middle of nowhere that have turned out to be white elephants. The nearby East Midlands Parkway has proved to be a flop partly because it is not near enough to the airport and so therefore the area will have two fairly useless stations. Meadowhall seems now to have gone but going into Sheffield means that journeys north from there will no longer be possible.

Possibly the aspect which most obviously shows that this project is not born of any wider social concerns or sober assessment of the needs of passengers is the decision to build it to a specification of 400 kph and run the trains, initially at 360 kph. Even Walmsley baulked a bit at this and wondered why this bit of peacock preening had not been subject to greater scrutiny. That is the point. Roger Ford, indeed, noted in the last issue that every extra kph adds exponentially to the cost of both building and operating the line.

The underlying reason for specifying this speed is that the business case – the benefit to cost ratio that underpins all major projects – is based on time savings of travellers and therefore the faster the train goes, the more the supposed benefits. Nothing illustrates the nonsense of the whole business case assessment process than designing the British HS2 track to a speed used by no other high speed line in the world.

Another nonsense is that the business case is also based on the notion that there can be 18 trains per hour. Again, this is not achieved by any other high speed line and is, according to all railway timetablers to whom I have spoken, fantastically optimistic given that many trains will enter the high speed section from classic lines. Again, this is a result of the methodology of the business case dictating the outline of the project as without such supposed heavy use, the benefits are lower.

Finally there is the vexed issue of capacity. Successive transport ministers have promised that the current level of service will be maintained to towns like Coventry or Stoke which are not on the line. That effectively rules out any potential use of freed up capacity for freight because these services will continue to eat up all the available fast line capacity and HS2 has never claimed it will liberate any slow line paths.

Despite my opposition, I consider it likely that Phase One will be built given the political support, though I have severe doubts about Phase Two in its entirely, which ironically has a better business case using the Department’s flawed and absurd methodology.

I would just like to conclude on the tone of this debate. I do not see why emotions are so inflamed by this issue. At the end of the day, it is a transport matter, which obviously will have an impact on the economy, the environment and other aspects of life in the UK, but, folks, we are not discussing whether we should respond to the invasion of Poland or the privatisation of the health service. Keep calm.


I thought Ian Walmsley’s comparison of me with ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ was possibly a slight exaggeration.  Haw-Haw, or William Joyce, broadcast pro-Nazi propaganda from Berlin during the Second World War and was later hanged for treason. Did Ian really mean to suggest that I was ‘literally a Nazi’ (as they say on Twitter)? Putting libel risks to one side for the moment, might I recommend that Ian and his publishers give closer scrutiny to ‘McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists’, before his next column is published? After all, who breaks a butterfly on a wheel.


  • Chris Davison

    Japan’s Shinkansen are a short as UK High Speed lines would be, and no-one with any sense says that they have not benefited Japan.

  • avlowe

    Translating current performance with existing trains and systems to the London-Birmingham route, then a 125mph GC/GW joint line would deliver Birmingham in around 60 minutes. In 1962 a concession to run at speed saw a prototype Class 47 AVERAGING 100mph on the jointed track with semaphore signalling. The latest HS2 plans show a tunnel with a 1 in 40 ruling gradient – lets hope it doesn’t get too wet in there – the Severn Tunnel has 1 in 100 and heavy trains struggle. The actual existing high speed line has a ruling gradient limit of 1:176, far more economical energy-wise.

    A 125mph enabled Midland Main line (or a concession to run at that speed to prove the thing) could deliver a significant improvement on the 2h 01m of the currently timetabled fast service. Leeds likewise, especially as all trains now go the slower way via Wakefield

  • Stratfan

    Sadly northern MPs supported the white elephant,London centric hs2 which will cost a fortune and will not solve the north south divide as promised by Hammond and others.
    Time for them to force a rethink.

  • Eddie

    True, but are you aware of its previous old rail system – a trundle cart would have been an improvement let alond high speed stock and rail and don’t forget HS in Japan is still in deficit!

  • CorBlimeyJerkin

    A nice article. If only those in political power would read it and think.

  • Andrew Kingdon

    A thoughtful article but please can I disagree (without resorting to disgraceful Nazi slurs).

    As a resident of Nottingham the Midland Mainline is hopelessly outdated, travel south is no faster than the steam era, travel north to Leeds so outdated its feels like it should be under the control of the Fat Controller. travel to Birmingham (>50 miles) even worse. I totally resent the ending of the electrification programme on the mainline which is hugely detrimental to the regional economy,

    But HS2 will solve many specific problems, connecting Nottingham to London, Leeds, Birmingham and (indirectly) Manchester in a fraction of the current time. You are specifically wrong in comparing Toton with East Midland Parkway. Toton is within the Greater Nottingham city limits, with a large population within minutes of this station and will be easily connected to the cities tram network (currently terminating a mile away). EMP is in the middle of nowhere , not easily connecting to East Midlands Airport (2-3 miles away) and rendered irrelevant as a way of access rapid transport into Nottingham by the recent upgrades to A453 and tram park and rides at Clifton. Its the classic case where integrated transport thinking would have of a

    Specifiucally the


  • Keith

    And isn’t Japans economy even more reliant on Tokyo than ours is on London? That’s not a good omen.

  • Bassam Mansour

    You will find the source of the problem in the U.K. is confused institutional arrangements concerning the governorship of the railway industry and its structure. Instead of developing HS2 as part of the overall national network, It is built as a standalone parallel system that will compete or undermine the national railway by duplications. When the government takes money out or divert it from the national railway, national railways becomes poorer with rundown conditions and eventually become dilapidated. Then you will have some with the audacity to complain about national railway inefficiency.
    I still don’t understand the reasons why the HS2 route doesn’t go to Heathrow , which is a major trip generator, infact its possible to improve the business case by the Heathrow connection.

  • I so agree Bassam – we desperately need a strategic body

  • Chris Davison

    Having now returned, the Shinkansen are everything they’re cracked up to be and the metre gauge services are a damned sight better that those bl**dy “Pacers” we’re stuck with.
    More strength to HS2, HS3, HS4 etc.etc..

  • John

    Christian mentioned phase 1. Phase 1, London to Birmingham (Lichfield) and phase 2a, Lichfield to the Crewe Hub, are the only parts of HS2 worth building, as once built phase 2b adds little value at all. The two phases are to be built simultaneously – they are as one.

    Phases 1 & 2a serves: Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Preston, Glasgow and Edinburgh – seven.

    Drop the the Yorkshire leg of phase 2b: Nottingham, Derby, Sheffield, Chesterfield, Leeds and Newcastle will be omitted – five. However, the east coast mainline with bottlenecks removed and fast state of the art trains will be just as fast as HS2 taking trains from London to Leeds. HS2 is not much faster to Sheffield and Chesterfield than the existing slow MML, which can be much faster with updating. As Christian points out, Derby and Nottingham to their centres is faster directly using the MML, which currently is slow. So dropping the eastern leg of the HS2 `Y` does not negatively impact the towns and cities served by HS2.

    Remove the eastern leg trains from HS2 and the traffic south of Birmingham is much lighter, meaning more trains can serve the North West and Scotland. The likes of Chester and Stoke can be on HS2 and also a Birmingham to Liverpool service partially via HS2. Yes, there is no Birmingham to Liverpool HS2 service, yet a town like Chesterfield is served. Two of the UKs biggest cities. You couldn’t make this up.

    Phases 1 & 2a serve London’s extended commuter belt and the Scottish cities greatest. For political reasons the journey times to Scotland have to be shorter – some high-speed track inside Scotland in the future (instigated by the Scots parliament) will reduce journey times even more, maybe getting below the magic 3 hrs to London.

    Liverpool and Manchester gain not much from HS2 phase 2b in journey times when compared to removing bottlenecks from the west coast mainline spurs to each city and using high-speed state of the art classic-compatible tilting trains. The proposed non-tilting high-speed classic-compatible trains go slower on classic tracks than what we have now.

    If the DfT right now, said only phases 1 & 2a were to be built and all the rest scrapped, Yorkshire would go ape, shouting discrimination. Only when these phases are near complete could they even mention scrapping phase 2b, as public opinion against it will be so high due to the poor value for money.

    So, we are spending all this money to extend London’s commuter belt and keep the Scots happy and less rebellious.

  • John

    Christian is right, Toton will be as deserted as the Manchester airport HS2 station, which is not even connected to the existing station. Derby and Nottingham with an uprated MML will have similar times to London. So HS2 in that respect is no gain there. What will make matters better for the East Midlands is NPR (once called HS3), the Liverpool to Hull line. Grayling is saying no more than 125-140mph – which is making it on the cheap.

    It needs a straight line from Liverpool to Barnsley via Manchester Victoria, through a Pennines `base` tunnel. Manchester Piccadilly faces the wrong way and needs taken out of commission in favour of a large, new, Manchester Victoria through station serving HS2 and NPR and other services. Terminal stations in inland cities are very inefficient.

    NPR can branch into the MML, ECML and the WCML. It can also act as a linear hub.

  • John

    HS2 was to:

    – Connect the UK to the Continent so people from say Liverpool and Leeds, etc, can travel to Paris non-stop.
    – It was to move all existing inter-city services of the existing lines and give them over to regional and freight.
    – It was to inter-connect all the major British cities.
    – It was to inter-connect all the major airports and the airports to all major cities.

    It does none of the above.

  • John

    A re-think? Work has started on phase 1.

  • Andrew Kingdon

    Sorry but with that route NPR achieves nothing at all for Nottingham and Derby, not much for Sheffield, and nothing for linking Manchester to Leeds & Bradford. Unless there are vast hoards from Hull desperate for fast links to Manchester and Liverpool who benefits? Its basically the old northern part of the Great Central railway, closed because few needed it.

    Toton is within Greater Nottingham and a few minutes from Derby serving a combined population of around 1.25 million people. However if MML is electrified and upgraded to both cities, Sheffield & Leeds then you would have a point about the value of HS2. EXCEPT that the recent timetable changes for the Thameslink have probably added more journey time than electrification would save. The East Midlands loses out once again.

  • John

    Greengauge21, who forward the HS2 concept, to expand fast/high-speed rail. Looking at HS2, should we take them seriously?

    The press release:

    The report:

  • John

    “Upgrading the East Coast Main Line to 140 mph operation as a high priority alongside HS2 and to be delivered without delay. Newcastle London timings across a shorter route could closely match those achievable by HS2.”
    The above is from the Greengauge21 report.

    The APT of the early 1980s, 36 years ago, was designed to run at 155mph on existing classic track. Surly they can do better on an upgraded ECML with state-of-the-art trains. This puts into question the whole of the eastern leg of the HS2 “Y”.

  • John

    Andrew, the west to east NPR Liverpool-Hull line would be a linear hub enabling fast direct access for Derby & Nottm to Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow – and North Wales if extended in the future across the Rivers Mersey and Dee. An upgraded MML with state-of-the-art fast trains will give similar times from London to Derby & Nottm as HS2.

  • John

    Bassam Mansour
    Something tells me Heathrow will be abandoned in favour of a Thames estuary airport, incorporating an anti-flood dam, that is why Heathrow is being shunned. Boeing, NASA and Imperial College have been researching 2,000 seater seaplanes. That requires water to land and take off. Water gives as many runways as you need. Environmentally it is far superior as planes take off and land over water.

    Also why any NPR track, leading to HS2 should run past Liverpool airport which is on a wide estuary – the airport was located where it is to operate seaplanes in the 1930s. High speed rail can link up just a few large environmentally friendly water based airports and all major cities and towns. Many other dirty airports can close down. The UK has far too many small airports. High-speed rail is the key to all of this. Then most people in the UK may only be a 30-45 minute high-speed ride from a few major large airports.