High Speed Two – a fancy train set not the North’s economic salvation


Link to HS2 routes

Guest post by Simon Cooke

The boys have got their train sets out – we are to be graced by high speed railways. Zooming across the midlands and landing happy smiling business folk, pockets crammed with cash to invest in the North’s economy. There will be dancing in the streets, there will be a smiling, happy and of course rich population. High Speed Two is the thing – or so says the government:

“We do need to rebalance the economy, it has been too dominated by the south and by certain industries and high speed rail will really help to create a better balanced economy.”

And the opposition:

“Shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle said the Opposition backed the development of HS2 and would continue to work with ministers on the plans, which saw draft routes north of Birmingham published.”

Up here in Yorkshire, the great and good are falling all over each other to say how brilliant it is that they’ll be able to get away from Leeds and down to London ever so much faster:

“We have lobbied long and hard for a high-speed rail link to Leeds and this is excellent news. It will strengthen Leeds’ position as the northern transport hub and unlock major investment, jobs opportunities and connectivity to the rest of the country.”

Sorry folks but I’m going to rain on your party. Not because I’m a NIMBY – indeed because I’m the very opposite of a NIMBY. Up here in the South Pennines, there’s no obvious benefit at all from bringing London half-an-hour nearer Leeds. We still have to get to Leeds in the first place – assuming, of course, that any of us actually want to go to London by train.

Here are the facts – train use:

is highest in London, where almost 40% of the population use trains at least once or twice a month and more than 10% use them at least three times a week. This figure drops quite drastically for the rest of GB, with only 20% using trains once or twice a month, less than 5% using trains at least three times per week, and almost 50% of the population using trains less than once a year or never. In rural areas rail use is even less frequent; as much as 55% of the population use the train less than once a year or never, while only just over 10% use trains at least once or twice a month.

Most of us just don’t use trains – cars, buses and shank’s pony are the preferred transport (and urban mass transit systems like trams and trolley buses where they exist). The truth of the matter is that the speedy rail journeys to London are the preserve of the relatively well-off. And we can expect that fares on High Speed Two (if High Speed One is anything to go by) will be even higher than the current extortion masquerading as a fare.

And we are expected to accept that this will transform the North’s economy! I don’t believe this for a minute and, more to the point, the “transformation” isn’t going to start until 2032! The truth is that the North – however we want to define it – does need transport infrastructure investment and some of that maybe should be in railways. But what we want is intensity not ‘extensity’ – to connect all the places of the North together, to begin emulating the dynamic systems of London and other successful cities. What we don’t want is to make the imbalance in UK rail – 60% of rail journeys start or finish in London – worse. Indeed, High Speed Two seems fitted to supporting London’s economic development rather than the economic development of Yorkshire, Lancashire and points north.

Let’s put is more simply still – if the government put £30 billion on the table for The North to develop its transport network, do you think we’d even think of building a railway to London?

Of course not – we’d build a tram system for Leeds and Bradford then link it to Manchester’s Metrolink. We improve Cross-Pennine routes maybe even reopening the link from Skipton across to East Lancashire. And we invest in new stations and a more intense local network. We’d connect to the airports and to the coasts. We might even let Newcastle have a bit of the money!

I really don’t care whether the route of HS2 is through the Chilterns or George Osborne’s back garden – folk there can argue the case. But I do care that the North is being sold a white elephant – nay, a veritable white brontosaurus. For sure, the shiny new railway will be spectacular – I’ve been on those loss-making, system-destroying TGF trains and they’re ace. But it won’t bring economic salvation for the North just a glint of hope as we watch what’s left of our economy spiralling down into the maw of London.

What do you think? Feel free to chip in with your two penneth worth below. 



  1. Hear! Hear!

    The Government must be really desperate if their only hope of an engine for growth is a project which only creates jobs in 20 years time.

    Mind you, those won’t be “new” jobs due to HS2 just ones that would probably have been created anyway but somewhere else.

  2. And you haven’t even touched on the fact that high speed trains have carbon emissions comparable with using planes.

    Leeds is already 2 hours away from London by train. By the time to factor in check-in times and travel to airports outside the cicites, trains are already faster than planes to London.

    HS2 is a new rail network for the rich being built with money that could make a better network for us all.

  3. I’m going to play devil’s advocate here, a little, as while I have no specific objection to the HS2, I do agree that such a vast amount of money could be better spent elsewhere.

    Many of my London friends would love to move to northern cities where the cost (and quality) of living is so much better. However, in many sectors the jobs are in London and nowhere else, and a two-hour journey either way (on a good day) is just too much. However, a reliable, comfortable 1.5-hour commute either way might well alter where people choose to live. I commuted from Essex to London for years, taking 1.5 hrs each way on a good day. I realise that tickets will be expensive, but the ludicrous cost of housing in London and the south-east would probably counteract that.

    Whether you want Londoners to come here is quite another matter.

    On a related point, some job areas are increasingly work-from-home, with just essential meetings in London HQs. HS2 would make it easier for workers to base themselves further north, bringing southern money to northern cities.

    Finally, certainly not a reason to build HS2, but a positive if they do so: I often feel a bit cut off from my friends and family down south. the train journey twice in one day is a bit much, but equally I cannot afford the exorbitant hotel bills in London. While I’ll be able to day-trip more easily, my friends and family will be more likely, equally, to visit northwards.

    Now I’ll duck and run for cover…

  4. The article dismisses the proposed economic benefits of HS2 out of hand, but then builds the case for £30bn of local transport infrastructure on the thinnest of evidence bases i.e. your gut feel and some non-comparable data on train use, from which we’re all supposed to infer absolute causality between local train use anf economic growth.

  5. There has been massive growth in use of the rail network – one of the main drivers for having HS2 is lack of capacity on existing lines (freight and passenger), not the need for a ‘businessman’s toy’ (though if you build capacity, why not build it for high speeds?) . Existing lines are also lacking in all kinds of ways – difficult to access for maintenance (hence the frequent weekend shutdowns), hard to upgrade for larger freight traffic or electrification. Upgrading existing routes is very disruptive and costly – the advantage of a new build is that you will barely notice any effect on the existing network it until it is ready – those who remember the upgrade of Leeds station around 2000 know how much of an impact this can have.

    I’m slightly bemused by the idea of travelling to Manchester via tram/metrolink, any idea how long that would take, or the cost/benefit of sticking a new metro line over Saddleworth?

    My problem with HS2 is also the same as that I have with the second-rate trolley bus scheme we’re getting instead of a tram – that it represents a failure of political leadership – Leeds will basically be on a branch line from a direct high-speed link to Manchester (their travel time: 1hr 8mins). Despite having a smaller population than Leeds (even including Salford), Manchester has made itself a focus for transport investment – a proper tram with roughly £2 billion of investment in today’s money over the last two decades, the expensive west coast rail line upgrade of last decade, and now the primary northern destination of HS2. What are we doing wrong? In the same time we’ve secured the reopening of one station (Glasshoughton) with a couple more on the distant horizon, driven by developer money rather than public need.

    Trains aren’t very expensive if you book in advance – £13 tickets to London are easy to find, even less than two weeks beforehand. I sometimes wonder if the (admittedly justified) shrieks when fares rise above inflation created the perception that all trains are expensive, when with a bit of planning they’re very good value. The walk-up fares for Leeds-Crossgates or Leeds-Bramley are also cheaper than the bus!

    1. You could argue that Manchester is on a branch line from Leeds but whatever the case there will be a massive increase in capacity and a much much faster and more comfortable journey.

      Manchester is seeing a huge increase in the tram network and trans Pennines electrification as well as the northern hub are going ahead. There is a massive investment ongoing throughout the rail network and from the period 2014 to 2019 more than 4 times the amount being spent on hs2 in total is being invested in the existing rail network.

      As far as Leeds is concerned a tram network would be far preferrable to a trolley bus network but that is preferrable to more car congestion and existing buses. And remember that once the electric wires are up the system can at some point be coverted to a tram line and the trolley buses sold. It is up to Leeds to push for this and if people in the community want a tram then some kind of congestion or local tax might be needed. But the tram isn’t anything to do with hs2 although it would connect

  6. Actually it is a much needed infrastructure project calling it a boys toy or train set is neither accurate nor original. And whether you want to go to London or anyone wants to go to Manchester or Birmingham etc is irrelevant the reality is that both roads and existing railways are stretched and congested with people travelling between our major cities where most of the population and businesses are located.

    If you have to travel to Leeds anyway to connect with a London train then hs2 is indeed one hour quicker then it is currently. And even if you don’t ever use hs2 the existing lines will still be there and the capacity released by hs2 will allow trains to call at more stations and free up seats on existing trains not to mention more freight. So more capacity and seats on existing lines so modal transfer will take lorries and cars off the roads.

    The wider economic benefits and reduced journey times are merely the icing on the cake but will add up to substantial amounts. As far as emissions are concerned even with the current mix of electricity generation hs2 will produce far less emissions per passenger then by train. Network rail has signed an agreement that all electricity used by current services will be from nuclear power as is the case for Eurostar from London to Paris where emissions are one tenth of that of an equivalent flight !

  7. My opinion – which I think agrees with the author – is that rather than bringing in investment to Leeds (and the North) HS2 is in serious danger of stripping it away even further.

    Where’s the encouragement for organisations to set up in Yorkshire when its (perceived as being) so easy for those living in the North to get down to London. So that’s major investment not being addressed by HS2.

    In terms of incidental investment, if I’m working down in London then its shops and businesses there that would get my lunchtime spending rather than the (decimated) high streets in the North. Again HS2 is not going to address this.

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