10 Jan 2012

HS2: What’s in it for you?

The government has given the HS2 project the green light – but campaigners say the battle for high speed rail in the UK is not yet won. Channel 4 News looks at the arguments for and against.

It’s a £32bn rail line which – at first – will link London with Birmingham in 49 minutes. Longer term, the High Speed 2 rail link will go up to Leeds and Manchester. And it’s carved up opinion as dramatically as some say it will carve up the British countryside.

On Channel 4 News we have been debating the issueand you can check out the arguments below.

Read more: FactCheck - Why the numbers don't add up on HS2 

‘It has to be done’

Many in the business community believe HS2 is necessary to ensure Britain can compete on a global scale.

Indeed, John Longworth, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, warned on Tuesday: “Fundamentally, our global competitiveness is at stake.”

Adam Raphael, a director of the Yes campaign for high speed rail who has covered the politics of transport as a leading journalist for 40 years, told Channel 4 News: “When you think of almost every other developed country – Japan, Spain, Germany, Italy, China – they have all been going down this route of high speed rail. This country is amazingly conservative. It’s the founder of the railways but nowadays anything new is regarded with the deepest suspicion.

“We are, in terms of infrastructure, one of the poorest developed countries in the world because successive governments have under spent on infrastructure.”

We are, in terms of infrastructure, one of the poorest developed countries in the world. Adam Raphael, pro-HS2 campaigner

He said that people affected by the route have a legitimate grievance, but believes it can be worked around – as happened in France.

“When the TGV was going south in France, there was bitter resistance. Parts, like in Britain, were beautiful and protected and lots of people lived alongside. But they did it, and they compensated people properly – which I think is crucial – and they consulted and in the end they got the lines through. It’s not easy, but the idea of not doing it is utter madness. Do we want to live in the 19th century?”

The government has chosen the HS2 plan to deal with increasing capacity on the railways, but some campaigners say they could have improved the existing network instead.

Professor Mike Geddes has done a lot of research around HS2 – and is in the “no” camp.

“In France, the classic rail network was much less efficient than ours so high speed rail added something – although its classic rail network has continued to decline. We say here we could improve the classic network more cheaply and easily,” he told Channel 4 News.

He believes that the government and Network Rail have still not looked properly at the capacity argument, despite a number of studies – and he is also concerned that the project could take up all the money available, leaving other parts of the UK network to fall into decline.

Economic argument

As Professor Geddes argument suggests, at the centre of the HS2 debate is money. The government estimates that it will cost £32.7bn, but believes that the benefit cost ratio (taking into account wider economic benefits) is between £1.80-£2.50 for every £1 spent.

Economic benefit – particularly decades in the future – is notoriously hard to quantify, but in this case includes jobs created as well as wider regeneration boosts. But Professor Geddes is not convinced.

“All the research shows that the biggest benefits will be to London and the south east so any claims about rebalancing the economy are highly unlikely to be realised. And to paraphrase Clinton – it’s the stations, stupid.

“The areas around the stations are liable to benefit – but there will be very little for other parts of the country. For example, I live near Coventry. Coventry is not only getting fewer trains to London, it is also liable to lose investment to Birmingham,” he said.

Will HS2 bring benefits to the UK? (Getty)

Using the French example again, Professor Geddes said unemployment in Lille, one of the key TGV stations, has continued to rise despite HS2. He accepts there has been some growth in the town as a result of the TGV but also suggested that much of this comes from regeneration and investment put into the centre of Lille that is not all TGV-led.

Professor John Steven Toms, head of the York Management School at the University of York, signed a letter supporting HS2, sent to the Financial Times last year. However, he told Channel 4 News he understands some of the complaints levelled at the project – but maintains that any investment is better than none.

He said: “In a time of austerity and cuts, anything we can get is obviously to the benefit. It is infinitely preferable to a road and for the business community in the north, there is definitely an agenda to connect the north more effectively to the national economy.”

FactCheck: Tracking the cost of high speed rail

Environmental case

Pro-HS2 campaigners say that if you accept that Britain needs to travel, the best way to do this in an environmentally friendly way is HS2.

Mr Raphael told Channel 4 News: “Do you want people to travel? If yes, they must be allowed to do so. And how will you do so? Put them in the air, on the road? Compared to road journeys HS2 is a great deal more environmentally friendly. High speed rail can shift huge numbers of people – in Japan their high speed trains run every four minutes at peak hours.”

However, environmental groups generally do not believe that HS2 delivers. Friends of the Earth director of policy and campaigns Craig Bennett said: “We need to revolutionise travel away from roads and planes – but pumping £32 billion into high-speed travel for the wealthy few while ordinary commuters suffer is not the answer.

“High-speed rail has a role to play in developing a greener, faster transport system, but current plans won’t do enough to cut emissions overall.”


Despite being given the go-ahead on Tuesday, it appears the arguments for and against HS2 are ongoing – and will no doubt continue as the project gets underway, particularly if any new obstacles crop up.

Professor Geddes said that the fight is not over yet. “The opposition is not going to give up. There are faults in the consultation process and they may be challenged. Plus in a few months the government can’t avoid announcing the route up to Manchester and Leeds and it doesn’t take much to see – there are 70 opposition groups now and then there will be another 70 making life even more difficult.

“So I think numerous actors will still come into play let alone in due course the Treasury having to decide whether we have the money – that cannot be a foregone conclusion.”

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