HS2: Steadfast Progress or Slam the Brakes?

HS2: Steadfast Progress or Slam the Brakes?

February 1, 2020: Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson announces that a high-speed rail link through the centre of England will be built, admitting it was a ‘controversial and difficult decision’. Behind schedule and over budget, the return on investment from this planned rail network is increasingly in doubt under the UK’s current economic conditions.

HS2 Beginnings 

First announced in January 2012, a high speed rail project known as High Speed 2 (HS2) will aim to connect London with northern areas of England. The project is split into two phases: phase 1 will connect London to Birmingham and phase 2 will further connect Crewe, Manchester, Leeds and West Midlands stations. HS2 aims to drastically reduce travel time for commuters in these areas; for example, travelling from Birmingham to London will be cut from a one hour and 21 minute journey to 49 minutes. 

The official price tag for HS2 was set out in the UK’s 2015 Budget and came in at just under £56bn. However,  the program has thus far been fraught with issues. The government estimate for the project has almost doubled since then, with the latest figure rising to £106bn. In addition to rising costs, the phased deadlines for HS2 have been pushed back. A written statement from transport secretary Grant Shapps states that the expected 2026 completion date for phase 1 of HS2 has been reset to 2028-2031 and finalisation of phase 2 will be between 2035-2040.

HS2 Map

Figure 1: Map showing the route for HS2: phase 1 and phase 2.

The HS2 route map (HS2 Ltd)


Those in favour…

Arguments for the HS2 rail network are based on the expansion of train capacity, supporting job growth and making a significant step forward for reducing carbon emissions from the transport sector. An ambitious plan, it constitutes Europe’s largest infrastructure project

Existing transport services in the North of England have not been updated for years; such an inefficient system is insufficient to support a growing population and increased urbanization. Despite its relatively small land area, the UK is on track to be the largest nation in Europe by the second half of this century. The Coronavirus pandemic has further illustrated the inadequacy of this infrastructure due to the difficulties enforcing social distancing onboard. Overcrowded and outdated forms of transport are no longer acceptable in the name of public safety. HS2 is chiefly aimed at reducing these disparities.

The British Government also claims that HS2 will support up to 30,000 jobs and create opportunities for British businesses to upskill their workforce. Engineers, designers, architects and geologists will be amongst those to benefit, as well as 2,000 new apprenticeship opportunities

HS2 has been championed, by supporters, as a crucial part of the UK’s transition to a net zero carbon economy. The railway was first introduced as an eco-friendly alternative to expanding Heathrow airport. Travel via rail is the most carbon-efficient and cost-effective means of transport; increased rail use reduces reliance on other more environmentally harmful forms of transport such as planes and cars.

Those against…

The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world; population growth will further increase pressure on ecosystems, public services and transport. A report from Wildlife Trusts states that HS2 will threaten a total of 108 ancient woodlands with loss or damage and endanger protected wildlife species causing long-term and potentially irreversible impacts on their population. HS2 has proposed green corridors along its route to combat these issues, however, the Wildlife Trusts deemed them inadequate. 

It is not only natural ecosystems that will suffer. Four ‘nature improvement areas’, defined as landscape scale initiatives for wildlife, boasting a collective taxpayer receipt of £1.7 million will be undone under current HS2 plans. This destruction of taxpayer funded areas adds to an already hefty bill of £106 billion from public spending for HS2. 

The case for HS2 diverting travel away from polluting industries in the travel sector, thus acting as an alternative to expanding Heathrow airport, can only be effectively applied to reducing emissions from car travel. As this project runs through the center of England, there is little to no reduction of existing air corridors being replaced. Unlike HS1 that served international high-speed routes between London and Paris, London and Brussels and London and Amsterdam, HS2 will not actively replace common routes covered by air travel, and therefore, the carbon reduction cannot be viewed as massively significant for carbon reduction goals. 

What comes next for HS2?

Although arguments against HS2 are building and intensifying, it can be predicted that the project will, regardless of opposing opinions, continue to go ahead. Johnson’s decision to plough on with HS2 plans can be seen as a political move. In the 2019 general election the UK conservative party won a huge Commons majority by flipping seats in traditional Labor heartlands across northern England. HS2 can serve as a repayment to these northern areas of England that placed their trust in the conservative party to deliver for their constituencies. Unless Johnson wants to take a short-term economic hit in the midst of a financial crisis and tarnish his ability to deliver new, modern transport infrastructure then construction on HS2 will, most likely, carry on.

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