HS2 and meeting forecasted rail passenger demand
The proposed high-speed rail link in the UK (branded HS2, after the first edition which links London to continental Europe through the Channel Tunnel) is a megaproject in the truest sense of the word. A rail infrastructure development bearing an estimated investment of somewhere in the region of ￡30+ billion, HS2 will manifest as new or revamped stations, tracks, viaducts, bridges and, of course, trains that will run at a maximum speed of 360 kilometres per hour. Upon its full completion in the 2030s these trains will have crossed the Great British isle from South to North in the so-called Y-shaped network, linking London to Birmingham (Phase 1 of the project), then on to Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow on the left arm of the network; and to Sheffield, Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh on the right.
Besides the objectives to bridge the economic North/South divide, incur a ‘modal split’ and reduce (automotive) congestion, the core rationales of HS2 are to expand the seating capacity in trains between the major urban conurbations of the country and reduce journey times. Jointly they will be able to meet the forecasted growth of rail passenger demand in the coming decades. Surrounding this rationale is the ever-present need for economic growth, to which HS2 is presented as a viable ‘value for money’ business case. In principle, this is not a bad thing to do. The commissioning of large infrastructure projects by a government responsive to its citizens and willing to make strategies for the longer term is more than welcome.
However, to all Pavlovians out there who’ll argue more train is less car and plane, this much can be said: not all is hallelujah. Far from it. The construction and operation of HS2 will have a direct physical impact on those living along the preferred line of route. Due to technical requirements related to running at such high speeds, the rail link will be unable to curve around the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, several ancient woodlands and areas of wildlife, as well as sites belonging to the National Trust. The proposed HS2 scheme is therefore vigorously contested by concerted action of civil society groups all along the line of route.
A debate designed to resolve this (ostensible) local/national tension seems to be inherently asymmetrical. After all, so the Department for Transport (DfT) would probably want to reason, one cannot thwart a project this vital for the national prospect based on supercilious goals of protect and preserve. Yet even when arguments against HS2 are denounced as being privately held or, worse, as representing mere NIMBY rhetoric, a healthy discussion on the necessity and validity claim of HS2 should nonetheless be in full swing.
Because why exactly does the match of future supply and demand of rail capacity require a new rail link? Capacity on the West Coast Mainline, currently the main North/South railway corridor, could certainly be expanded. Trains could be made longer so as to comprise 12 instead of 9 cars and the first/standard class configuration could be rebalanced. In-cab signalling could increase the speed of conventional trains up to 220 kilometres per hour. All this comes at a lower cost and propose an incremental upgrade to the ‘Victorian’ railway network, a term repeatedly used by the DfT to demonstrate that the existing infrastructure is already strectched to its maximum capacity.
In devaluing all ‘upgrade’ alternatives to HS2, the DfT leans heavily on the reduction in journey time. To some extent this is obvious: slower trains crowd the rail infrastructure, thereby putting a cap on the average number of trains per hour during operation. However, a much more controversial argument in favour of reducing journey times is that train travel is considered a waste of time. The promoters of HS2 advocate the message of a quantifiable loss of productive time when travelling. They argue that “the ability to spend less time travelling means that people can achieve more in any one day which is a benefit”. This may for instance mean that employees are getting quicker to the office (or leaving later from home) and that leisure travellers, which continue to constitute the overwhelming majority of the forecasted passenger rail demand, will get to the high streets quicker.
That time spent on trains is wasted time is a curious assumption, to say the least. D Drawing on a survey conducted in 2004, researchers from the University of the West of England in Bristol have shown that rail passengers appraise time spent on the train very positively. Indeed, why would working from a train be any different from starting the morning briefing at 8.30 rather than 9am? Evidently, train travelling may mean different things to different people but it is certainly one way to get the day kick started. In response to this and other rebuttals of the time-waste claim, The DfT has argued that it is “important to recognise that the key issue of interest is not whether people are productive on trains, but how much more or less productively any time savings are used, compared to how they are used in transit”. Again, this assumption is shaky at best, outright erroneous at worst.
Assumptions on the value of shorter journey times, in conjunction with the wasted time argument, is therefore the ultimate rationale behind HS2. It is interesting to note that this rationale is psychological in nature for it dictates how rail passengers should appraise their journey. Although wrapped in a story about capacity increase, and hence economic competitiveness (the ultimate rationale?), it resorts to very value-laden statements on the actual meaning of time to people. Assumptions are inherent in infrastructure planning but, given the large adverse impacts along the line of route, a scheme of the magnitude of HS2 should not be dependent on it.