What went wrong with HS2?

What went wrong with HS2?

Aug 11, 2021

The importance of a name

By profession I am a transport planner (a transportant!), though it is many years since I practised as such.


During the late 2000s I was a member of the West Midlands Business Transport Group and each year I would attend a presentation by Network Rail on the West Coach Main Line. Each year they would show us last year's forecasts, low, medium and high for passenger numbers. And every year the outcome was higher than the highest forecast.


It was obvious that in spite of massive expenditure on upgrades and the introduction of tilting trains, this Victorian railway line was running out of capacity and would be unable to meet reasonable needs in the future.


I have lived through the whole motorway age. I can remember travelling from Birmingham to London on glorified country lanes, following lorries restricted to 20 miles per hour.


Then the first motorways were built, and the world was transformed. Since then, a whole network has been built, and the geography and business landscape of Britain have been changed.


So, why not the equivalent in rail terms. A segregated railway built to modern standards, with limited stops and no interference from shared services and freight? This would also release capacity on the existing rail network.


I started to lobby for such a development and after much consideration whether to develop the east coast of the west coast route, it was decided to build from London to Birmingham and then split extensions to Manchester and Leeds. 


Good news?


Unfortunately, it was named HS2, High Speed 2, to match HS1, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. Any public understanding that it was about capacity was lost and there was ongoing controversy about the cost of saving ten minutes on the journey between London and Birmingham.


More seriously, it appears that the concept of 'high speed' was taken to an extreme. Travelling at high speed incurs increasing construction cost and constraint on possible route selection. As a result, costs have spiralled 'out of control' and ancient woodlands are threatened.


It seems we could be planning for the fastest line in Europe!


Would things have been different if it had been give a different name?