Should we Spend £30bn on High Speed Rail?


Before the election, the previous government put forward its plans for HS2, the high speed rail network that it said will revolutionise the transport system in the UK and lead to lower carbon alternatives being more attractive than flying.


The main parties all seem to be agreeing with the principle of HS2, but there is some disagreement about where and how quickly it will be built. Opposition amongst people who live along the proposed route has been very vociferous, but amongst environmental groups there hasn’t been as much made of the flaws in the plan as expected. The trouble seems to be that people are starting from the wrong question to get High Speed Rail as the answer.


If the question was “How can we best de-carbonise our transport system?” would the answer be by building HS2?


If the question was “How can we get people about and use the space most efficiently in our largest cities?”, would the answer be by building HS2?


If the question was “How can we invest money in the transport network to benefit the largest possible number of people?” would the answer be by building HS2?


For all these questions, the answer, sadly, would be no.


In terms of low carbon transport, one of the first things we will need to ask is how are these trains going to be powered and where will that power come from. The generation of electricity is usually high in carbon and very wasteful. We don’t generate very much electricity from within the West Midlands and we have a woeful record in delivery of electricity from renewables.


Do we want to become dependent on forms of electricity generation such as nuclear power or new “clean” coal-fired power stations, just to enable us to travel that bit faster to a place we can already travel to, by at least three train options, with a staggering variety of prices?


Friends of the Earth’s briefing on HS2 states: “£2billion would pay for a 10 year phased roll out of ‘Smarter Travel Choices’ schemes across the UK. These schemes use marketing and promotion to cut car journeys by encouraging walking, cycling and public transport use. The Committee on Climate Change estimates that this would save 2.9MillionTonnes (Mt) of CO2 per year while the line to Birmingham would save a maximum of 0.41Mt (if any at all).”


Transport demand is linked to economic growth by most economists and looking backwards is the easy way to look forwards. However, there is another way – by back-casting not forecasting. In the former, we say where we want to be in 20 years time and start moving there from today, with a route map, and measure progress along the way. So, we may say, as the economic strategy states, that we want to move to a low carbon economy. What do we do today to enable that to happen and start that journey now?


We need to use all our existing infrastructure much more efficiently, not just our rail network. Car sharing would be one way of creating space on our road network. There are miles of underused rail tracks across the Midlands, so could we not start to explore renewed rail on these? Indeed, by utilising some of these lines we could create space on other lines such as the West Coast Mainline to enable existing trains to go a bit faster, although not as fast as HS2.


Then, there is the role of ICT and multimedia technology. What will the impact of High Speed Broadband be on the business travel market? If Prince Charles can use a hologram instead of travelling to a conference in Dubai then maybe we should all be thinking of reducing our collective wants to travel.


Transport funding is going to be hit hard. Would this be a project that you would keep when we should really be questioning the need to travel, and conducting a full analysis of our relationship with speed? For many of the reasons stated above, it does seem very hard to justify with such minimal benefits and in such a small country.


Despite the enthusiasm of political and business leaders in Birmingham, we remain very sceptical about whether it will just create another commuter belt for the South East and, overall, could actually make people here worse-off.


There is a very important discussion to be had on how we can transport people around in a world of diminishing resources (and how much). We are yet to be convinced that HS2 provides value for money, or a win for the planet, at a time when we need to take urgent action to preserve a stable climate.


FoE briefing:


Joe Peacock