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30 October 2020

Why everyone – and especially Greens – should still support HS2

The real argument for HS2 isn’t about speed at all, but about the number of people we can fit onto Britain’s rail network.

By Jonn Elledge

I sometimes feel like branding plays a larger role in politics than we often give it credit for. Most people – normal people, I mean, not the sort of people who write things like this or, quite frankly, read them – have neither time nor inclination to pay any attention to nerdy, wonkish matters of what policy actually does. So when they hear that, say, a politician favours building on the green belt, they imagine a heartless monster, intent on replacing picturesque rolling hills with miles and miles of concrete: the fact the green belt is very often not actually green is extremely unlikely to occur to them. In the same way, the idea that the Conservatives are the party of economic prosperity bafflingly continues to persist, despite the many and varied things this government has done to damage growth. 

For this reason, I can’t quite shake the idea that one of the big mistakes made by the people who came up with the UK’s proposed new rail link was the name. “High Speed 2”, after all, implies that the fundamental purpose of the line is faster trains and shorter journey times, and – underrated city though Birmingham undoubtedly is – knocking 33 minutes off train times from there to London does indeed seem like a flimsy reason to spend £80bn on a new train set.

The real argument for HS2 isn’t about speed at all, but about the number of people we can fit onto Britain’s rail network. The new line, construction of which started in September, will increase the capacity of the network in two different ways. Firstly, the main intercity routes between London and points north are painfully full, in terms of both trains on the line and passengers on each train. Since Britain’s rail network uses ticket prices to manage demand, that means they’re painfully expensive to travel on, too. The reason why building a new mainline will help address this should be pretty obvious.

[See also: Britain’s railways and the common good

The other capacity argument is slightly more subtle. As things stand, on large chunks of the rail network – not least the Birmingham suburbs – local trains share tracks with intercity ones. This limits the number of trains you can run without a fast one running into the back of a slower one, and since the fast ones command higher ticket prices they tend to take priority. HS2 will give the faster trains their own tracks: as a result, even though it’s a long distance route, it’ll make it possible to run more local trains into the centre of Birmingham and other cities, too. Despite the current pandemic-led collapse in commuting, that will almost certainly come in handy again in the medium term.

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(Actually, there’s a third argument related to capacity, which for reasons I’ve never quite understood even the project’s supporters seem to steer clear of. As things stand a signal failure in, say, Watford can effectively cut the capital off from Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and large chunks of the rest of the country. This literally happened on the last Wednesday of September 2018, when a large part of the Westminster bubble was trying to make its way back from the Labour conference in Liverpool. This seems to me a silly way to run a country, and a strong case in itself for building an alternative, but anyway.)

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You can see why the powers that be settled on this name: “high speed” sounds cool and futuristic, in exactly the way that “if we don’t do this the rail network will break” doesn’t. But it nonetheless means that much of the commentary criticising HS2 is wrongheaded because it’s aiming at the wrong target: shaving a few minutes off long distance journeys was never really the point.

The capacity argument means that building HS2 is also the key to a greener transport policy – though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from how it’s been discussed in some quarters. The Green Party has been campaigning vociferously against the new rail link, describing it as an act of “ecocide” because the route will pass through some ancient woodlands. In mid-October, the party’s co-leader, Jonathan Bartley, dismissed a Twitter poll showing higher than expected support for the project as “the usual trainspotters”.

We can leave aside questions of whether Twitter polls are worth engaging with or whether insulting voters is a great look for a party leader, since both have pretty obvious answers. Instead, let’s focus on the fact the whole argument is cynical nonsense. HS2 will destroy some ancient woodland, it’s true: but that happens with pretty much every transport project, because such sites are scattered across the country like confetti; and at 58 hectares the amount of woodland under threat is similar to the 54 hectares that will be wiped out by the Lower Thames Crossing, a single, 14-mile road link planned for Essex and Kent, which nobody seems half so het up about.

What’s more, HS2 isn’t an alternative to the investment in local rail that the party claims to want, but a necessary precursor to it. Not building HS2 won’t magically free up £80bn to invest in other transport projects, since government spending doesn’t work that way. But it will mean less space for local trains, less space for freight trains, and more journeys taken by road instead of rail.

So: building HS2 is the greener option. Yet the Green Party opposes it, because it will mean bulldozing some trees, even though not building it will almost certainly lead to more roads and bulldozing far more. I also sometimes wonder what the point of a small party is if it’s not going to fight for unpopular but necessary policies. HS2 isn’t the only thing in politics right now with a misleading name.

[See also: The great British train wreck]