HS2 purported benefits are an illusion

High speed rail is hugely expensive and therefore needs to deliver significant benefits to justify investing taxpayers’ money. However those lobbying for high speed rail have never put forward robust statistics showing benefits that the new high speed rail line High Speed 2 will actually deliver.

The HS2 Action Alliance has released a report, which puts forwards damning evidence that important benefits claimed for HS2, by HS2 Ltd – the company set up by the Government to consider the case for the new line – and other proponents, are illusory.

The whole project is predicated on dramatic rises in demand for high speed rail. HS2 Ltd forecast substantial increases in the demand for HS2 over the next 23 years. They estimate a 267% increase in demand for long distance travel on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) and HS2 route, by 2033. This is made up of a ‘background trend’ increase of 133% by 2033 – an already impressive 3.4% per annum. But they also predict an extra 84% increase made up entirely of new trips, an extra modal shift of 25% from air and 25% from cars, generated by HS2.

Passenger demand in 2033: WCML plus HS2 

That is an extremely confident prediction for HS2 demand, particularly when put in the context of demand forecasts for the Channel Tunnel rail link (CTRL), which is expected to see an increase of 16% by 2033.

HS2 Route Demand 

Not only does the prediction of demand for HS2 not fit with the predictions for similar lines, it is also hard to reconcile it with recent experience.  Demand for domestic transport per person seems to have stopped increasing. Indeed research by Dr David Metz, suggests there has been no increase in the number of trips made or total distance journeyed since 1995. Before that there was a clear relationship between increases in GDP and distance travelled per person, however after 1995 travel per person plateaued while GDP continued to rise. This makes the claims that demand for HS2 will rise dramatically – particularly the idea major increases will come from trend increases and new trips – rather implausible.

Travelling time, journey numbers and distances per person (compared with GDP) 

So what about increased demand due to modal shifts?  People using high speed rail instead of driving or flying. It is true that rail travel has increased since 1995, while car and coach travel has declined. Rail has therefore increased its share in a saturated market. However the modal shift predicted  by HS2 Ltd are a lot more radical than the modal shifts experienced by companies such as WCML and Virgin rail when they introduced new, speedier services.  The WCML and Virgin Rail saw a 70% increase in passenger journeys over 5.75 years uplift.  That increase is significantly less than is predicted for HS2. The HS2 Action Alliance state:

“To put figure in the same coin as the HS2 forecast (ie without the ‘background trend’ increase in demand), the uplift reduces to 41% above trend. This compares with the 71% above trend forecasted by HS2 Ltd.” 

So what about the other benefits claimed by proponents of high speed rail? Proponents of HS2 make a lot of its supposed green credentials. However, as it is pointed out in the report HS2 Ltd only claim that HS2 is carbon neutral, not that it will lead to any significant reduction in emissions. Alternatives projects such as extending electrification would reduce emissions.

The HS2 Action Alliance High also point out that; “high speed trains will use more than twice as much power as conventional electric intercity trains, and perhaps four times as much running at 400km/hr. Unlike French TGVs, they will not start running on nuclear power.”

Another purported benefit of HS2 is the value of journey time savings.  HS2 Ltd put estimate that there would be  £8 of benefit for every journey to users. However the HS2 Action Alliance argue that estimate is based on the assumption that 100% of the travelling time that is saved would not have otherwise been useful. But reports from Virgin Rail and the DfT suggest that time on trains can be very productive due to free wifi and power points for laptops. If you instead assume that around half the time saved is a genuine gain in productive time, the HS2 Action Alliance calculates that the benefit for time savings reduces. Total HS2 user benefits would then be £11.9bn (at £4/journey).

Another argument for high speed rail – and the strangest by a long way – is that HS2 is needed because rail capacity needs to be increased. Indeed the former Chairman of High Speed 2 Ltd, Sir David Rowlands said that the reason for building a high speed network "…is not about speed per se: it is about capacity."

But as the HS2 Action Alliance point out there are plenty of ways to increase capacity on trains that don’t involve risking billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on a high speed rail project. Examples include de-classifying 1st class carriages to standard class. 1st class carriages are lightly used as companies and individuals try to reduce their costs. The HS2 Action Alliance estimate that declassifying 2 of the 4 1st class cars in a 9 car train gives about a 30% increase in effective capacity with no lead time, disruption, or cost (as 1st Class revenues remain unchanged).

Additional cars could also be added to trains. For example if 2 cars were added to a 9 car train 32% would be added to total seated capacity. This requires some works, e.g. to station platforms, to accommodate them but  that investment would be far lower cost than constructing  HS2.

It’s about time that politicians thought seriously about the supposed benefits of HS2 before pledging billions of taxpayers’ money to building it.

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