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Europe / the UK

High speed UK: Why HS2 must only be the start of a wider national high speed rail network

HS2 is, to put it mildly, a divisive topic, with many compelling arguments on both sides of the debate.

For UK cities, HS2 represents a mixed bag. That’s true, both in terms of the positives and negatives for individual cities; but also in that, as currently planned, HS2 risks disproportionately channelling economic benefits to some cities while leaving others behind.

Inter-city connectivity is a vital prerequisite to economic growth. HS2 has a crucial role to play in bringing cities across the UK closer together, facilitating the spillovers of knowledge and ideas which lead to economic agglomeration and, ultimately, growth.

It follows that the primary beneficiaries of this investment will be those cities with full high speed connections. But the government has also been keen to highlight the benefits HS2 will bring even to cities such as Glasgow and Liverpool, which are only planned to be connected into HS2 via “classic compatible” services. These will run on existing – lower speed – track for the last leg of their journey.

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The proposed HS2 network. Click to expand. Image: Department for Transport/HS2 Ltd/ResPublica.

Over time, however, the current two tier strategy will inevitably lead to increasing segregation between “high speed” cities and the rest. Cities which remain dependent on increasingly outdated infrastructure will be seen as less attractive locations to live and work, with all the attendant negative economic and social consequences for their populations this implies.

In Japan, cities connected to the high speed Shinkansen network have experienced far greater population and economic growth than those cities which were not. In the UK, a similar result would mean advantaging those cities with a full high speed link to the direct detriment of those without. The economic gains promised by HS2 will likely end up concentrated in cities advantaged by dedicated high speed track and stations.

If HS2 is to fulfil its stated ambition of spreading prosperity more widely across the UK, it cannot leave the majority of UK cities stranded in this way. The money and effort HS2 will absorb make this a once in a generation investment. It should not done by half measures.

It is therefore critical that the government seizes the full potential of HS2, and commits to extending the proposed national high speed rail network to more cities across the country. This would distribute the benefits of high speed rail more equitably, by stimulating additional growth in these other cities and mitigating the risk that they will be left facing stagnation – as well as increasing the contribution of the high speed rail network to the national economy.

It is of course impractical to suggest that every city should have a direct link into HS2. Yet the vision of a national high speed network, connecting the major cities throughout Britain – including Scotland and Wales – is eminently possible, and indeed desirable when the potential consequences of the current plans, as outlined above, are considered.

ResPublica last month published Ticket to Ride, a report calling for a dedicated high speed rail connection from Liverpool city centre into the planned HS2 route. The report focused on specific sectors of the Liverpool economy which high speed rail would help to drive forward, including the freight potential of the newly expanded port, as well as the region’s strong recent business and employment growth figures.

ResPublica’s proposed Liverpool extension. Click to expand.

However, the key theme underlying these arguments is that Liverpool, much like other historic Northern cities, is at an economic tipping point. The region has seen considerable economic progress in the years since the turn of the millennium, yet the report made the case that high speed rail would be the vital investment which could cement this positive local economic trajectory.

On the flip side however, should Liverpool’s case for a direct high speed connection be ignored, this could see the region slip back into its post-war slump, as other cities – and Manchester in particular, as its closest neighbour – are prioritised at Liverpool’s expense. Liverpool is therefore a good example of a city which high speed rail could transformatively benefit, if current network plans are extended, but which otherwise risks being handicapped in the long-run.

Moreover, the extension we advocate would provide the first branch of “TransNorth” – an East-West high speed rail line connecting the cities of the North of England, of the kind currently being considered by Transport for the North and the National Infrastructure Commission. This would open the benefits of high speed rail to cities across the North of England like Hull and Newcastle. We therefore see the connection to Liverpool as a vital investment for Government.


Current plans for HS2 risk seeing the worst of both worlds – incurring considerable expense and effort, but spreading prosperity unevenly across the country and actively harming the long-run interests of some cities. Further investment, to create a genuinely national high speed rail network with full high speed connectivity for all parts of the country, will help to drive economic growth across the UK in years to come – and play a critical role in the rebalancing of the national economy.

Duncan Sim is senior policy officer at ResPublica.

You can download the “Ticket to Ride” report here.
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