What’s the point of HS2?

Christian Wolmar

Mohammed Salique owns a restaurant called Diwana in Drummond Street, which runs west from the side of Euston station. Diwana, which opened in 1970, claims that it was the first restaurant in Britain to serve South Indian vegetarian food. It wasn’t the first Asian food outlet in the street: Ambala, now a chain of shops selling Indian sweets, opened in 1965, catering to the immigrants from India and Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) who had started moving into the Victorian terraces in the area. Their arrival galvanised a district long blighted by the noisy steam trains that thundered in and out of Euston; Drummond Street became the heart of the community. When the main line out of Euston was electrified in the mid-1960s and steam engines were replaced by diesels, Drummond Street and the surrounding area began to prosper. In the 1970s a battle was fought by local squatters – with support from the Asian community – against a large property company, Stock Conversion, which wanted to build offices in the area (they had already built a huge complex on the other side of the Hampstead Road). Tolmers Square, which featured some of the best local architecture, including one of London’s smallest cinemas, was lost, but not to the developers: Camden council used the site to build social housing. Determined resistance saved the area for a mixed community, with a thriving street culture of small shops and cheap restaurants. There are few neighbourhoods like it in central London, but its days may be numbered.

Until the 1960s, Drummond Street continued to meet Eversholt Street on the east side of Euston, but this section of the road disappeared, along with the Euston Arch, when the present station was built. There was considerable opposition to the demolition of the arch, the original entrance to the station, built in 1837, but British Railways successfully argued that it would cost nearly £200,000 to reconstruct, compared with just £25,000 to demolish (the stones were dumped in a flood relief channel for the River Lea in East London). Now, once again, the railway is threatening Drummond Street. Euston has been designated the London terminal for High Speed Two, the 330-mile railway that will link the capital with Birmingham and then split to run, in a Y shape, north-west to Manchester and north-east to Leeds. Diwana is just outside the proposed footprint of the new station but, as Salique puts it, ‘There will be this Berlin Wall between us and the station which is actually the source of many of our customers. They come here with maybe thirty minutes to wait for their train and they know they can get a meal served quickly. We’re faster than McDonald’s.’ Worse, Drummond Street is earmarked to be the entrance for lorries into the site, hundreds of them every day, backing up along the narrow street, making things impossible for Diwana and the half-dozen or so other restaurants.

The Euston Arch in 1955
The Euston Arch in 1955

In the mid-19th century, the construction in quick succession of Euston, King’s Cross and St Pancras resulted in the demolition of much of Somers Town, the area just to the north of the three. The stations were built outside what was then the city boundary because a Royal Commission had banned the construction of any stations within it, fearing precisely the kind of destruction that now threatens parts of Camden. When a project is seen to be of national significance, the interests of the people who have the bad luck to be in its way are never going to be of primary importance. With every decision, there will be losers. Consultation, one supporter of HS2 told me, ‘is merely a device to allow people to let off steam. It is very rare that their concerns result in a change.’ But it’s possible also to have sympathy for supporters of the project: at times it must seem impossible to get anything done in our cumbersome and bureaucratic democracy. They point enviously to France, where things seem to happen faster, though that isn’t always the case: the TGV goes to Nice, but not yet on a high-speed line, as a result of local protests.

Jim Steer is HS2’s biggest fan. The former chief railway planner at the Strategic Rail Authority and founder of the transport consultancy Steer Davies Gleave, he believes the project is essential for Britain’s future welfare. ‘Do you know what the population of Britain will be in 2085?’ he asks, and then answers his own question: ‘85 million. Where will all those people go? London can only accommodate a couple of million or so. The rest will have to be elsewhere. And if we are to avoid terrible sprawl, they must be concentrated in cities and those cities must have excellent connections with London.’ Without HS2, Steer argues, the green belt and vast swathes of unprotected countryside will have to be developed. If provision isn’t made for rail, then people will be forced onto the roads. ‘HS2 is all about capacity, not speed,’ he says, ‘and that should have been made clear from the start.’

As soon as the document High Speed Rail, which sets out HS2’s route, was published by the Labour government in 2010, local action groups began to form. Attempts to form a united opposition have foundered on differences over aims and tactics, but even if these groups don’t feel able to work together, they have nevertheless managed to win over much of the public. Until very recently, the focus was almost entirely on the Chilterns. TV journalists were dispatched to carry out interviews with angry locals against a backdrop of fields, fences and furry animals. There was also a legal challenge led by 51M, a collection of local authorities and residents’ groups: £51 million was the original estimated cost of HS2 per parliamentary constituency (£33 billion divided by 650). The challenge failed last year, and while there is a possibility of a European hearing, it is unlikely to derail the process.

The legal challenge cost several hundred thousand pounds and the HS2 Action Alliance has funded expensive reports from consultants, but another group, Stop HS2, has had to launch an appeal to pay its co-ordinator, Joe Rukin, who is self-employed; in December he was paid just £380, which Rukin said had forced him to ‘reconsider his position’. Despite this group’s lack of funds, supporters of HS2 have tended to dismiss the ‘antis’ as well-heeled Buckinghamshire residents, more interested in protecting local house prices than the countryside. But damage to the environment isn’t really the issue either. There was a fuss over the construction of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (now known as High Speed One), but its footprint turned out to be rather light. There would undoubtedly be some damage to the countryside in the Chilterns and huge disruption during the construction period, and it doesn’t help that locals will see so little benefit, since there won’t be a station in the area (it would slow the trains down), but the residents of Camden have a lot more to worry about. The plans for Euston would result in the demolition of a number of blocks of flats. The plans are fluid, so it is unclear how many homes will be lost, but the current figure is 226 – twice the total along the rest of the line – with a further 250 at risk.

The compensation terms are seen as derisory by local residents. ‘Compensation and compulsory purchase legislation is archaic and complex,’ says a leaflet produced by Knight Frank, the property consultancy on the scheme. Unfathomable would be a better way of putting it. In France, the state buys homes at full market price in a band of 150 metres on either side of land affected by a scheme of national importance, but in the UK only those within a very narrow band – 60 metres on either side – qualify. An exceptional hardship scheme designed to compensate those outside this zone is discretionary. Much of the anger in the Chilterns was over houses that lie just beyond the 60 metre limit. There is a scheme for businesses, but the same limit applies: Mohammed Salique reckons he will get nothing.

In the ranks of the Camden protesters are a transport planner, an architect, an urban-planning academic and various other professionals. They are hedging their bets: if they can’t stop the scheme, they hope they can at least mitigate the damage. In a spartan community centre under a grey tower block on Eversholt Street, just north of Euston, they laid out an alternative plan for the station which involves two decks on top of each other, one for conventional services, the other for high-speed trains. This would limit the footprint of the railway and therefore reduce the need for buildings to be demolished. Their well-organised campaign against the shoddiness of the scheme for Euston has borne fruit: the plans for the whole area are currently being reconsidered.

A proposed re-creation of the arch in front of the new Euston station.
A proposed re-creation of the arch in front of the new Euston station.

The issue is whether the pain inflicted on the few is worth the gain for the many. The fate of the HS2 project should not and cannot be determined by angry locals. A national scheme now estimated to cost £50 billion (this figure includes a contingency of £14 billion and rolling-stock costs of around £7 billion) is bound to be controversial. To counter the objections, the case for HS2 needs to be overwhelming. And it is not.

The French use their LGV (Lignes à Grande Vitesse) for postal services as well as passenger trains and the TGV shares the tracks with conventional services at the Paris terminuses, but broadly speaking, high-speed railways are the motorways of the rail network: they are used solely by fast passenger trains running on dedicated tracks and making few stops. The world’s first high-speed line, the Shinkansen service between Tokyo and Osaka, opened in 1964 and ran at what today would be seen as the relatively low speed of 200 kilometres per hour. Most high-speed services now run at 300 kph and many would be able to go even faster – though fuel burn increases exponentially beyond that point.

In Britain we have long had High Speed Train 125s, the excellent rolling stock that has provided the bulk of InterCity trains for nearly forty years. But since they do not run on dedicated lines and operate at a maximum of 125 mph, they aren’t usually described as high-speed trains. In fact, the InterCity 125 developed out of problems with the Advanced Passenger Train project in the late 1960s and 1970s. This was a train which, by virtue of being able to tilt around bends, rather like a motorcyclist leaning into a corner, would be capable of speeds of 155 mph on conventional tracks. The target was to complete the nearly 400-mile trip between Glasgow and London in three hours. After a difficult testing period the train briefly entered service, first in 1981 and again in 1984, but the experiment was abandoned after a series of technical failures – and after journalists on one of the press trips got travel sick. The 125 service had already been introduced, in 1976, at which point it was the second fastest in the world, surpassed only by the Shinkansen network.

Meanwhile, high speed had arrived in Europe. The French opened their first LGV, between Paris and Lyon, in 1981 and now have a network of just over 2000 km. Spain is the European country with the most high-speed track (3100 km), second in the world only to China. British Rail, happy with the slower but hugely popular InterCity 125s, focused instead on incremental improvements, such as straightening curves and improving signalling. Even the Channel Tunnel, completed in 1994, was initially not linked to London by a high-speed line; without it, the journey to Brussels and Paris took more than half an hour longer. It was only when François Mitterrand embarrassed the British government in his speech at the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994 by observing that at least visitors to the UK would have time to admire the Kent countryside that plans for what is now HS1 were pursued in earnest.

Along with Eurostar, the 67-mile line now carries domestic trains to various locations in Kent as well as a couple of freight trains at night. The stations built at Stratford, Ebbsfleet and Ashford in order to increase use of the line and stimulate regeneration in those areas were all given the grand appellation ‘International’, though Eurostar trains don’t stop at Stratford and probably never will. The fact is that with a maximum of eight trains an hour, including domestic services, the line is operating at less than half its potential capacity. Deutsche Bahn has floated the idea of running services on the line but has been deterred by the high track charges, technical barriers and overbearing security arrangements: any station on the Continent where passengers board for the Tunnel has to have stringent and very expensive procedures to scan luggage and passengers. HS1, which opened fully in 2007, has now been sold on a 30-year lease to a Canadian pension fund for £2.1 billion, a mere third of the cost of construction. The terrible economics explain why there has never been any talk of HS2 being built by private interests, or even of its attracting significant private investment. Despite the Tories’ ideological dislike of public sector projects, HS2 is wholly government-funded. Infrastructure projects can, of course, have enormous benefits for society beyond the merely economic, and subsidy is therefore justified. This is something that politicians for the most part choose to ignore except, oddly, when it comes to a huge project like HS2, when suddenly almost limitless public money is made available.

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The idea of a north-south high-speed line first emerged when Alastair Morton, who had been the chairman of Eurotunnel, was appointed to run the Strategic Rail Authority, created by John Prescott in 1999 to give direction to the privatised industry. Morton commissioned a report from Atkins and Ernst & Young to assess whether there was a need for such a line. By the time they reported in 2003, Morton – who was too outspoken to occupy such a sensitive government post for long – had been replaced. Alistair Darling, the longest-serving New Labour transport minister, whose heart was always in his wallet, was adamantly opposed to the scheme. A report into Britain’s transport infrastructure needs by former British Airways CEO Rod Eddington, published in 2007, was lukewarm about the idea of a high-speed line, though promoters of the scheme point out that the Treasury wrote the report and that Eddington was more supportive later on when speaking to the House of Commons Transport Committee.

In 2006, Jim Steer set up a lobbying organisation called Greengauge 21, and it sent out a manifesto calling for a high-speed line to every MP. The following year, HS1 opened, exposing the fact that while France, Italy, Spain and Germany all had extensive high-speed networks, Britain had no plans for any new lines. The Tories sprang a surprise at the 2008 party conference when Theresa Villiers, the shadow secretary of state for transport, announced that the party would support the construction of a north-south high-speed line. The proposed scheme was a strange one, an S-shaped line that would go from London via Birmingham to Manchester and then across the Pennines to Leeds (which would be reached in much the same time as the present two and a quarter hours). At the time, Andrew Adonis was the number two transport minister. A long-time devotee of the railways, having joined the Cotswold Line Promotion Group as a teenager in the 1980s, he began pushing for Labour to support a new north-south line. Geoff Hoon, the transport secretary, announced in January 2009 that the government backed a third runway for Heathrow. Adonis persuaded him that to soften the blow for the environmental lobby he should at the same time announce the creation of a government company, High Speed Two Ltd, to consider the options for a new high-speed rail network. It was to report quickly with a ‘costed and deliverable proposal for a new line from London to Birmingham’.

The line was to operate at 400 kph – which means few curves and low gradients – and had to emphasise connections to Heathrow. Given these constraints, the only viable route was via Old Oak Common, six miles west of Euston, where the line could connect with Crossrail, the east-west route through London currently under construction.[*] From there, it would continue to a station near Birmingham Airport, with a spur to a new terminus at Curzon Street, almost a mile from the present station at New Street. This first phase is currently the subject of a hybrid bill in Parliament, part of the tortuous mechanism by which the new line will get planning permission. That process is expected to take two years, as objectors (known officially as ‘petitioners’) are given the opportunity to state their case. If there are no major setbacks and the political parties hold firm, construction is expected to start in 2017. The second phase, north of Birmingham, will be the subject of a further hybrid bill and will not be completed until 2033.

Grassroots Tory Party members are, for the most part, deeply sceptical – I have spoken at fringe meetings at Tory conferences where the mood could best be described as hostile – yet David Cameron and even George Osborne appear genuinely committed to the project. They see it as a way of boosting business and of demonstrating their credentials as modernisers. They also believe it will help their electoral prospects in the North. The fate of HS2 doesn’t just lie in the coalition’s hands, however, but with the Labour opposition, which could probably kill the project by withdrawing its support. Merely by saying at last September’s Labour Party Conference that there was to be ‘no blank cheque for HS2’, the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, caused widespread panic. The Lib Dems are definitely onside, claiming it was their idea in the first place.

The result of the rather haphazard genesis of the scheme is, unsurprisingly, a mass of compromises. In the baldest terms, there are to be four terminus stations in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, and four parkways (including Old Oak Common; if Crewe is added, there will be five) connected by some 330 miles of railway. There will be just three connections to the existing rail network: the line has more in common with a motorway than a trunk road linking many places. The line speed, at 400 kph, will be the fastest in the world, but at first the trains are expected to run at 300 kph, possibly rising to 340 kph. Some of the trains will be built with a European loading gauge, which means they will be too large to continue their journey on the existing rail network (they wouldn’t fit through the tunnels).

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Andrew Adonis, in making his case for the scheme, emphasised the economic and environmental benefits, the speeding up of services and the need for extra capacity to reduce overcrowding. Much of this reasoning has since unravelled. First to go was the environmental argument. The original document which set out the scheme – High Speed Rail, published in March 2010 – estimated the potential change in carbon emissions over the next sixty years resulting from a high-speed line from London to the West Midlands at between -25 million tonnes and +26.6 million tonnes. In other words, the line was as likely to increase carbon consumption as reduce it. The reasons for this disappointing result are that 57 per cent of travellers would be shifting from conventional rail, which uses less fuel, and that a further 27 per cent of journeys would be generated by the existence of the line. Only 16 per cent would transfer from car or plane, which are potentially environmentally more damaging – though cars are becoming increasingly fuel efficient, a factor the document did not take into account.

Environmentalists, who tend to love trains and hate cars, face the greatest dilemma over HS2. Prominent figures like George Monbiot and John Whitelegg are adamantly opposed. ‘The whole project is characterised by overblown rhetoric about economic growth,’ Whitelegg wrote in 2012, ‘reducing the north-south divide and making the nation more prosperous. It is of course nothing like this at all. It is a very expensive, very environmentally damaging, very badly thought through transport project.’ Given that it would be used mainly by people in the 50 per cent tax bracket, he added, it was a ‘reverse Robin Hood strategy’. The Campaign for Better Transport is torn. It likes the idea of the increased rail capacity, but questions the scheme’s use of parkway stations that will be reached by car. There are worries, too, about how existing lines will be affected. Will services to towns left off the route be kept up or will they deteriorate? There are currently four services an hour from London to Coventry, thanks to the fact that the trains continue to Birmingham. Will all of those survive? CBT wants to see more rail freight, but there is no guarantee that the freed capacity will be available or needed for goods trains.

With the environmental case gone, the scheme’s supporters in the early days tended to emphasise the speed of the line – a mere 49 minutes between London and Birmingham Curzon Street compared with 82 minutes on the fastest Virgin service. That was an own goal, as they now admit: £17 billion (at 2011 prices) is a lot to spend on cutting the journey-time to Birmingham by half an hour.

Next, the scheme’s supporters turned to capacity. Anyone who has tried to get on a Pendolino to Birmingham or Manchester on a Friday night would take the point: there’s barely even room to stand. But this is the result of Virgin’s pricing policy, which charges premium fares on trains leaving Euston before 6.46 p.m.: a single ticket to Manchester at peak time is £113; an off-peak ticket bought in advance can be as little as £19. The truth is that the line is not overcrowded. Data obtained by Chris Stokes, a consultant and former network director at the Strategic Rail Authority with responsibility for assessing new lines, show that long-distance trains leaving Euston were on average 52 per cent full at the evening peak. This is lower than at other London stations, where no such huge increase in capacity is being sought (Alistair Darling last year argued that money should be spent on commuter routes rather than long-distance travel).

The case therefore boils down to growth in demand. HS2 Ltd used very optimistic forecasts: an overall increase in passenger numbers on the InterCity routes out of Euston of 267 per cent by 2033. Half of this is based on an underlying trend rate of 2.2 per cent annually – if no line were built – and the rest on new passengers, either making journeys they wouldn’t have made otherwise, or switching from other modes of transport. It is true that passenger numbers have doubled in the past twenty years. On the West Coast mainline, a £9 billion upgrade and Virgin’s introduction of the new Pendolino trains and more frequent services have, indeed, resulted in a rate of increase in passenger numbers higher than on the rest of the network. Steer notes that rail’s share of long-distance journeys – those over 25 miles – went up from 8 per cent to 14 per cent between 1996 and 2012, as taxes on company cars were increased, car ownership in London declined and it became easier to use mobile devices on trains. However, to extrapolate this growth over the next twenty years is optimistic in the extreme, according to Stokes: ‘I believe there will be significant growth in rail demand,’ he says, ‘but if it’s half the amount forecast by HS2 – still more than double present levels – the business case for HS2 would collapse, as the scale of the benefits delivered directly relates to passenger volumes.’ We have been here before. HS1 was expected to carry 25 million international passengers by 2006: it reached ten million just last year. The excuse given by the original forecasters, Steer included, is that the emergence of low-cost airlines damped down demand, but that merely shows how vulnerable to unexpected developments such growth forecasts can be.

The formulation of business cases for such projects has led to the development of a specialised industry that adds vastly to the costs of such schemes but provides little decisive evidence. It works like this: the costs of the project, of both its construction and its operation, are set against its benefits. It is in the assessment of the benefits that the voodoo economics come into play. The benefits are taken to consist largely of time-savings made by users, which are given a monetary value. So an hour’s time saved by a rail passenger is valued at £36.96; for the occupant of a taxi it is £44.69, while an hour of a cyclist’s time is worth only £17. More than two-thirds of the assumed benefits come from these time-savings, which completely disregard the time that people now spend productively on trains with the help of their mobile phones and laptops. Indeed, I have written large chunks of this article on a Pendolino, and could have got more of it done that way had the journey been longer, which suggests that the time I saved by taking a fast service might even have been negative. Most of the rest of the benefits consist of ‘wider economic impacts’: businesses do better, the argument goes, when they are closer together because of economies of scale and easier access to markets.

Even when these assumptions about time-savings and economic impact are granted, the business case has struggled to reach the minimum benefit-cost ratio of 2 demanded by the Department for Transport. The ratio has declined slightly as HS2 Ltd has refined the scheme; it is currently reckoned to be 2.7, and just 1.7 if only the line to the West Midlands is taken into consideration. This is poor in relation to road schemes, which routinely have a benefit-cost ratio twice as high, and well below flood-prevention schemes, which, as Chris Smith, chairman of the Environment Agency, highlighted during the recent crisis, required a benefit-cost ratio of at least 8 to be sanctioned by the Treasury. And all this is leaving aside the dependence of the HS2 business case on the accuracy of the growth forecast.

The clear weakness of the business case has led even supporters of the scheme to play down its importance. They are left with little but clichés. The line is ‘vital for Britain if we’re going to succeed in the global race’ (David Cameron); ‘HS2 is a very important part of the wider revamping and modernisation’ of UK infrastructure (Nick Clegg); ‘HS2 connects up the economic heart of the country’ (Andrew Adonis). And so on. The methodology on which the case for HS2 rests has been quietly set aside by its supporters, who now claim that the arguments were never about business cases anyway.

HS2 is just one big punt. That would be fine if it were a project that could live up to the claims for it made by politicians of all three parties. But it can’t. Henry Overman, professor of economic geography at the LSE, was once a paid adviser to the scheme. ‘HS2 is poor value for money compared with other transport plans,’ he wrote in the Daily Telegraph on 16 November 2013, ‘and may well be poor value for money compared with alternatives that address exactly the same set of problems. If politicians understand all of this and decide to go for HS2 anyhow, then that is their call and we can hold them to account at the ballot box. What worries me, as I watch the debate, is that they seem convinced that the evidence suggests that HS2 is a fantastic project … HS2 isn’t an awful project on that basis, but it isn’t a great one either.’

The muddled thinking over the aims of HS2 comes out most clearly in the issue of its potential connection with Heathrow. The route was designed to head west to start with because the remit required it to connect in some unspecified way with Heathrow. It then became clear that few people from outside London wanted to go to Heathrow and that Londoners themselves were well served by the existing rail connections, the Heathrow Express and the Piccadilly Line. HS2 Ltd’s own document admitted that ‘the total market for accessing Heathrow from the West Midlands, North-West, North and Scotland is currently around 3.7 million trips. Our modelling suggests relatively little of this would shift to HS2, with the rail share increasing by less than 1 percentage point (about 2000 passengers per day, or just over one train load each way).’ Heathrow was left off the direct route, a decision endorsed in a report produced for HS2 Ltd by Brian Mawhinney, a former Tory transport secretary; instead, passengers coming from the North would get there by changing to Crossrail at Old Oak Common. So, the route of the line is determined by the need to connect with Heathrow, but the line will not now connect with Heathrow.

Faced with a well-organised opposition and, worse, a growing general scepticism, the supporters of the project have begun to fight back. In January David Higgins, former head of the Olympic Delivery Authority and more recently the chief executive of Network Rail, was appointed as chairman of HS2. Higgins, an Australian and an engineer, was no doubt drawn by the excitement of another grand project after the day-to-day banalities of railway management, the intricacies of regulation and the constant pressure over performance.

He immediately pinched a couple of people from Network Rail: Simon Kirby, who was in charge of major projects (including huge station renewals at Birmingham, Reading and London Bridge), and Tom Kelly, a communications strategist versed in the dark arts – he was Alistair Campbell’s successor at Number Ten. Higgins undertook a review of the project and the results, in the form of a new document, HS2 Plus, were presented on 17 March in the gothic gloom of Manchester Town Hall (which always doubles in TV dramas for the Houses of Parliament). Higgins’s report had obviously been cleared with the government. The emphasis had shifted. There was no more talk of fast journey times or environmental benefits. Instead, as the venue for the launch demonstrated, the new sell is that the scheme will reduce the north-south divide. Higgins suggested that the first phase of the scheme should no longer stop at Birmingham but go on to Crewe, where a station should be built to improve interconnectivity – the new buzzword – between northern towns. So, as well as the two stations in London, there will be two in Birmingham, one apiece in Leeds and Manchester, one between Derby and Nottingham (at Toton), one close to Sheffield (Meadowhall) and now probably one in Crewe. Four of these stations will be terminuses, with limited connectivity, and the rest are essentially parkway stations or, in the case of Old Oak Common, designed for interchange. But people want trains that go into city centres, not parkway stations, which merely encourage more car travel.

Oddly, the other two main changes presented to the press in Manchester concerned the capital. First, the partial reconstruction of Euston will be abandoned. Instead, the station will be replaced by a new one, as yet not designed. This makes sense: the current station has never been popular, and the site offers a huge development opportunity that could attract private capital (as at King’s Cross) but also allay some of the local opposition. However, it remains unclear whether the new scheme would allow some of the council blocks earmarked for demolition to stand, and the impact on Drummond Street is likely to be unchanged. Second, Higgins suggested scrapping the link between HS2 and HS1, for two reasons: the ridiculous £700 million cost for a few miles of railway between Old Oak Common and Camden, and because part of it would have to run along the North London line, a highly successful commuter and freight track recently revamped at huge cost. This decision rather undermines one of the fundamental reasons for HS2. Without the European connection, travellers to the Continent will have to trudge half a mile along the Euston Road, or possibly stand on a long travelator – though the British Library inconveniently blocks the way. The prospect might be enough to deter the few people – even HS2 Ltd reckoned there would be only a handful of trains a day linking cities north of London with the Continent – who would choose to go by train rather than fly, say, between Birmingham and Brussels.

The fundamental problem with HS2 is that its origin as a sop to environmentalists, not as a considered response to need, has skewed its development and planning. In a rational world, the process would have started with an assessment of the rail network’s needs and, in particular, of the existing connections between towns. There has been no shortage of alternative suggestions from within the industry. Two experienced engineers, Quentin Macdonald and Colin Elliff, have published a very detailed plan, High Speed UK. Their objection to HS2 is that ‘it does very little to improve the network, and concentrates connectivity on London.’ The high-speed network, in their view, should be an adjunct to the existing railway rather than a quasi-replacement for it. It should be designed as a network, not a route, an entirely different philosophy much more in keeping with railway history and usage. Elliff and Macdonald would ditch Old Oak Common and instead open up a route that runs largely along the M1 corridor. Their scheme would improve links between pairs of cities. ‘There are 528 city pairs in the UK,’ Elliff says, ‘and links are improved in only 6 per cent by HS2 whereas in our scheme almost all, 498 – or 94 per cent – of them will have better journey times.’

It is probably too late for such a radical alternative to be put forward. If the present scheme were killed off, it is unlikely that it would be because a better one were being considered. There are few objective analysts of HS2. On the one side there is the large group of consultants, engineers, project managers and so on who stand to gain directly from it. On the other side are those who have the most to lose or are, like the Institute of Directors, sceptical of large-scale government projects. One impartial analyst is Peter Hall, Britain’s best-known planning academic. He thinks the scheme should be given an amber light. In an article in Built Environment published late last year, he wrote that the future of HS2 depended on two critical elements, the value of time spent on the train and its ‘wider economic impacts’. The case for regeneration is uncertain, he says, and requires much further analysis. He concludes that there is no need for urgency ‘either to proceed with the project or to cancel it’. HS2 ‘will almost certainly be needed one day. The key question is what day? … there could be no harm, and a great deal of merit, in waiting.’ Given the changes now being proposed to the scheme, the pressure to concentrate more on the North, and the weakness of the business case, this would make sense. But very little about HS2 has made sense, and politicians, nervous of being seen to dither, are always in a hurry.

[*] Nick Richardson wrote about Crossrail in the LRB of 11 October 2012.