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Transport / Mass transit

No, High Speed 2 isn’t really about capacity

By his own admission, this month’ Conservative conference saw transport secretary Chris Grayling again try to sell HS2 to a less than enthusiastic audience. His approach was to chide us all for focusing on the speed of HS2 rather than capacity.

Not that anyone does. And speed is hardly a separate issue: it determines the basic design of HS2. The faster the trains are meant to run, the lower the threshold for any flexibility in choice of route or of station location. The speeds require a route that is as straight as possible. This rigidity, in a country of exceptionally dense settlement, is what makes HS2 the most expensive railway on earth.

To bolster the new narrative Grayling invoked the issue of freight: “Do you want to get more lorries off the roads and on to the railways?” This would be a laudable aim, but sadly the more honest version would be: “We want to get freight off the roads, so we’re building a railway that won’t carry freight.”

HS2 Ltd has admitted that only half the freight paths of the West Coast Mainline are actually used. Last March half of all UK rail freight paths, 4702 of them, were relinquished because they weren’t being used. As Network Rail said at the time: 

“It is important the whole rail industry works together to make best use of existing capacity, to minimise the need for additional expensive capacity enhancement schemes.”

Whilst politicians insist that there is simply no room to fit more trains on the tracks, this freight path release, and the fact that London Midland have twice recently increased the number of trains they run out of Euston simply by changing their timetable, are the reality – as is the fact that Virgin artificially supress Euston’s capacity for commercial reasons.

But where the capacity argument really comes unstuck is in passenger statistics. Some 23 per cent of passengers coming into London in the morning peak are standing. But the Virgin West and East Coast franchises, those very services that HS2 is designed to alleviate, are the only ones into the capital with no standing passengers, according to DfT figures.

Proponents of HS2 would of course point to the crowded London Midland services into Euston: if the intercity trains were on different tracks, they’d argue, there would be more room for local services. That’s what ‘freeing up capacity’ means: cutting existing inter-city services which, unlike HS2, have intermediate stops. Bad news for the likes of Coventry, Stoke and many more.

The value of the savings made by cutting these existing rail services crept up to £11bn in the latest HS2 business plan. Spending £56bn to solve the commuting problems of Milton Keynes, through additional price of nationwide service cuts, seems rather disproportionate. 


Grayling also stated passenger growth forecasts dictate the need for HS2. But, wherever Fyou look across the world, high speed rail projects never attract the grossly inflated passenger numbers used to justify their construction.

And what’s more, the forecasts only demonstrate the total incompetence of the Department for Transport. It has predicted that, over the next five years, London would see an increase in passengers of just 0.049 per cent, with other major stations netting a 0.026 per cent: hardly enough to justify building HS2.

But the real world figures for just one year show a 0.5 per cent drop in London passengers, and a 3.8 per cent increase for the rest of the country, the vast majority of which would not benefit from HS2. In other words, the discrepancy between the real-world figures and the DfT forecast is a factor of 726.

Now, Philip Hammond has announced £300m of projects to plumb HS2 into the network, just after Chris Grayling cancelled long awaited electrification programmes. It’s these much needed but non-sexy projects which would alleviate the crush-hour conditions faced by short-distance commuters – and which are the opportunity cost of HS2. 

If HS2 was about capacity it wouldn’t be a dedicated high speed railway. In return for the extra cost, the taxpayers don’t get intermediate stations, don’t get integration with the rest of the network, and don’t get a line with the ability to carry freight. High speed means paying a premium to minimise flexibility and capacity, whilst vastly increasing running costs and not having the budget to spend on anything else for 20 years.

The capacity to see this reality is what we desperately need.

Joe Rukin is campaign manager of StopHS2.
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