‘Flawed and irresponsible’: why HS2 is a colossal error

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The promotional video for HS2

jonathan-tyler-bylineYork-based rail expert Jonathan Tyler argues that the £35 billion rail plan is a political vanity project which will deliver few improvements and cause untold damage

HS2 is being presented as a wonder-solution for alleged problems with the “classic” railway. Local authorities and business leaders in Yorkshire have got very excited about the proposals. They should look more closely.

HS2 is a politicians’ and engineers’ vanity project. It has not emerged from a careful analysis of a range of options for enhancing the railway system as demonstrably the optimal scheme on which to spend a lot of money.

The argument that the capacity of the trunk main lines will soon be exhausted is based on flawed data, hyper-optimistic forecasts of growth and a failure to understand the potential for improving the productivity of existing lines. In any case, the problem of overcrowding is largely limited to a few trains in peak periods and £35 billion is rather a lot of money to spend resolving that.

Committing so much money to a project that can bring no benefit for at least 12 years (and 20 years for phase 2 to Yorkshire) is bizarre and irresponsible at a time when the future is becoming ever more uncertain in the face of technological and environmental developments. Incremental change to the classic network (which could include some stretches of new line, eg to yield faster trans-Pennine times) would be infinitely wiser.

The engineering dream of the perfect railway has led to the concept of having very few stations on the high-speed network. This is no way to spread the benefits of a huge investment, especially since the connections between these stations and regional networks will be poor.

"Hyper-optimistic": the HS2
“Hyper-optimistic”: the HS2

Much has been made of the fast timings between principal centres. We should be wary. The comparison is between present mediocre timings and best-possible future times – it ignores the scope for (possibly dramatic) acceleration on existing lines. It also neglects the crucial matter of frequency. For example, the sketchy timetable shows two trains/hour from York to London, but only one each to Sheffield and Birmingham (passengers for places beyond, such as Bristol, may be left with a reduced service by the present route or an awkward interchange).

And many experienced railway people have profound doubts about the ability of the line to carry the number of trains which political expediency has pressured HS2 into offering. If it cannot it is likely to be the eastern leg of the “Y” whose proposed services are cut back, especially if multiple operators try to compete for the Manchester and Birmingham traffic.

There is something pathetic about northern politicians queuing up to welcome HS2 when no narrowing of the north-south divide can materialise for 20 years

The project is environmentally unacceptable. It cannot capture sufficient traffic from cars and planes to offset the high carbon-cost of building it and of running trains at high speed, while siting stations outside towns and promoting long-distance commuting are just what we should not be doing if we want a low-carbon economy. As for the damage to local environments, to natural capital and to people’s homes and livelihoods the project is simply not sufficiently beneficial to the nation to justify it.

Evidence that high-speed trains promote regional regeneration is extremely thin, and if anything they mostly benefit the major cities, especially capitals. There is something pathetic about northern politicians and business leaders queuing up to welcome HS2 when even on the optimistic view no narrowing of the north-south divide can materialise for 20 years – the problems are far too deep to wait that long.

Contrary to the impression the Government is giving HS2 is not a done deal. The plans have to pass a number of judicial tests, surmount powerful local opposition, go through a long and fraught process for Parliamentary approval and survive likely budget cuts. It may not happen.

Jonathan Tyler runs transport consultancy Passenger Transport Networks from his office in Stonegate. Jonathan has worked for the railway industry for nearly 50 years and is passionately committed to enhancing public transport.

He is a chartered member of the Institute of Logistics and Transport, a visiting research fellow at the Institute for Transport Studies in the University of Leeds and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Institute of Railway Studies and Transport History in the University of York.


  1. The Hs2 business case is feckless and flawed! The compensation scheme for families whose lives are ruined by the announcement of the line has been ruled by the Parliamentary Ombudsmen as “not transparent and flawed”. During the initial public consultation (phase 1) Hs2 Ltd FAILED to consult with any of the emergency services in relation to risk, contingency planning or disaster recovery – playing fast and loose with commuter safety is totally unacceptable and we know know the ‘risk register’ that supports the project is “RED/AMBER”! There appears to me to be a sense that only those with “vision” can see the need or benefit of building HS2? The arrogant high handedness of Ministers and politicians alike disgusts me! Ordinary people can see right through your “emporers new clothes” esk train fantasy – wasting so much public money on such a fanciful idea that destroys so much of our environment just to knock minutes of a train ride is nothing short of disgraceful! There are far better ways to improve the railways for a fraction of the cost and which will deliver results far quicker! David Cameron should do us all a favour and tell the Hs2 brigade of highly paid consultants to go back to the drawing board! We cannot build our way out of congestion (assuming it exists?) So look again for a smarter, more innovative, sustainable and environmentally safe way to spend public money!

  2. Your article is one of the best I have read on HS2. It hit all the important issues. If I may quote from the Eddington Report of 2006:

    ‘The risk is that transport policy can become the pursuit of icons. Almost invariably icons such projects – ‘grands projets’ – develop real momentum, driven by strong lobbying. The momentum can make such projects difficult – and unpopular – to stop, even when the benefit:cost equation does not stack up, or the environmental and landscape impacts are unacceptable’

    ‘.In short, step change measures, such as a new nation-wide very high-speed train network, are not, in a world of constrained resources, likely to be a priority. That is why it is critical that the government enforces a strong, strategic approach to option generation, so that it can avoid momentum building up behind particular solutions and the UK can avoid costly mistakes which will not be the most effective way of delivering on its strategic priorities.’

    I fear his warnings have been ignored. Why? Lord Adonis arrived and swept all common sense aside in his wild enthusiasm for HSR. This project would have hit the buffers if it hadn’t been for the Conservatives opposition to The third runway at Heathrow. It is difficult to believe HS2 was backed as an alternative. Goodness know why. The Lib Dems backed it because it would be good for the environment. Of course it is not! Now we have entered the wild claim scenario. In recent weeks we have had the PM and his team claiiming that it will heal the North/South divide. What nonsense. If the motorways and the existing rail network have failed why would another railway line? It is claimed as an ‘engine for growth’. Why? There is no evidence from the countries that have HSR. Spain has the most HSR miles in Europe and is a basket case. The USA has no HSR and is now growing strongly. Don ‘t think I would swap an HSR network for Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google, eBay, Facebook etc.

    I could go on but I won’t! The forecasting is risible, particularly the assumption that people don’t work on the train, so all the savings in time are seen as an economic benefit. Ridiculous, of course. As Eddington predicted, the momentum builds behind these projects and they are very difficult to stop. Particularly, as in this case, there is cross-party support. Goodness knows why! The current vogue is ‘investment in infrastructure’. So this gives a further level of impetus to the project despite the many, many years before it is finished. Clearly there is significant economic activity from the bulding phase but this can be matched by work on the existing system. However, I fear this is less glamorous and appealing to politicians. After all they are just Victorian railways!

  3. “The plans have to pass a number of judicial tests, surmount powerful local opposition, go through a long and fraught process for Parliamentary approval and survive likely budget cuts. It may not happen.” A claim that begins to explain why the UK constantly lags behind – for decades the UK public has been critical of the lamentable state of its rail infrastructure – now finally the penny has dropped that we need to invest heavily in new capacity and what do we see; constant sniping from the media outlets with their own agenda, a plethora of armchair experts with suddenly acquired powers of insight into a myriad of technical fields & localised campaign groups clustered along the published route agitating to prove why any new line through their neck of the woods is a very bad idea (but would mysteriously improve if only it was a bit further away).

    Jonathan Tyler may be a commentator with some expert knowledge who happens to disagree with current High Speed Rail (HSR) strategy – there are many others who hold opposing viewpoints – look up William Barter for instance, who would vigorously rebut all of Mr. Tyler’s observations and no, he doesn’t stand to gain from HS2 (before the cynics react in an all too predictable fashion).

    Mr. Tyler is also economical with the truth to reinforce his arguments – why for example does he fail to mention the huge sums now being ploughed into much needed refurbishment of the existing rail network; to wit £37bn announced only recently for the 2014-19 control period or to put it another way, a pro-rate annual rate in excess of £7bn compared with the less than £2bn per annum committed to HS2 for its planned 17 year construction cycle (2016-33). Is that spend also a waste of taxpayer’s money, simply because it’s an eye catchingly large figure?

    HS2 is not about now as Mr. Tyler is well aware – it’s about providing a long term solution to a proven approaching capacity crunch in certain key ares of the network – upgrades have been tried before – remember the WCML debacle of the 90s – a project that started out with a budgeted cost under £2bn but ended up at nearer £9bn, ran years late and inflicted untold misery on the rail travelling public – not a good idea to go down that route again? So if a new line is the only long term way forward, it makes sense to create a world class rail network fit for the 21st century whilst also linking up major parts of the UK to a burgeoning pan-European HSR network – HS2 does all of that and more.

    In conclusion Mr. Tyler would be better placed telling all of the story rather than just the half that plays to his arguments. HS2 should go ahead – the scrutiny of public attention could play a more constructive role if it was focused on the overall cost of this project compared with its European mainland counterparts – why for instance does a brand new 302km line between Tours and Bordeaux, built to the exact same technical standards as HS2, cost a mere £7bn (at current rates of exchange) – yes, HSS (phases 1&2) is a larger project and adding in Euston’s makeover adds disproportionately to the budget but the whole thing should still be nearer to £20bn, not well north of £30bn – sadly the antics of a relatively small number of naysayers with their own self interest driven motives aided and abetted by the likes of Mr. Tyler have diverted the public’s gaze from this vital aspect of current rail transport policy – Mr. Tyler would serve the public better if he pointed out these more significant shortcomings?

  4. Peter Davidson Co-chairman TraMPNet Transport Modelling Practitioners Network wrote:
    Our view is that the transport modelling tools that were used are not
    sufficiently developed and robust enough to provide the scientific evidence to
    support the current proposals, business case nor the cost benefit analysis.
    Ignoring the scientific evidence may lead to a non-optimal scheme and wrong
    decisions which could jeopardise progress towards constructing high speed
    rail in this country.
    Just saying…

  5. I am a potential sceptic of the the present HS2 plan – though I find this article so short on facts as no not change my limted opinion one jot. Arguments like these would logically imply that there was no point in any country spending any money on creating new passenger lines (freight is not mentioned) rather they should somehow “fix” their present ones. And as such I am sceptical of yet another anti-HS2 article, which to be honest is a rewrite of all the other ones. (I wait in hope…) Yes, I’d like to see new short lines opened up all over the place – but where are these trains going to run to, given that train paths are taken up by expresses carrying “important people long distances”? Real people who are trying to make the economy tick over, and logistics companies trying to move their goods, are shunted on to a siding, somewhere…. To convert me, you’d have to convince me that building a new line (wherever) is not a more efficent way of going about solving the same problem.

  6. Dear Jonathan
    I agree with much of your criticism of HS2. I think the major issue is that it is the wrong technology at the wrong time. The only way that the economy of our cities could be sustained in the future would be a comprehensive and fast service to allow mobility of labour.
    I have written a paper that criticises HS2 and makes some suggestions about possible alternatives. We do need to comprehensively review what the requirements for a 21st transport service should be. Please have a look at the ideas in this paper. As stated they are designed to shine a light on the flaws in HS2, but I have tried to present a credible alternative options. What I have proposed is not to everyones taste but you are welcome to give comment on these ideas. They can be found in the PDF document ‘MaRT proposal’ on my website http://www.martmoves.org.uk. I suggest using Maglev technology, but it is the operational aspects that are novel and the construction aspects innovative and more senstive to environmental and social needs.

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