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Despite enthusiasm, HS2 ‘has the weakest economic case of all projects’

The economic justification for HS2 has been slammed in a letter from the chair of the Treasury Select Committee to the transport secretary.

Andrew Tyrie told Chris Grayling that the DfT has failed to “comprehensively examine” whether increasing conventional rail capacity would offer better value for money.

The DfT has claimed the higher cost of HS2 is justified by the economic benefits of faster journeys between UK cities, but Tyrie points out that reports from the Treasury Select Committee and the University of Leeds Institute for Transport Studies have found no clear evidence supporting this.

Tyrie’s letter, in which he also criticises Grayling for failing to provide “clear answers” about the economic case for airport expansion, said: “HS2 has the weakest economic case of all the projects within the infrastructure programme, yet it is being pushed through with the most enthusiasm.”

The chairman also argued the government has not explained why it regards a 2003 feasibility study from the Strategic Rail Authority as offering evidence for using the Chilterns as a high-speed rail route.

He said the DfT has not reviewed opportunities for reducing the cost of HS2 by constructing a line with a lower maximum speed, despite the House of Lords Committee recommending this over a year ago.

He then concluded: “The case for providing sufficient detail to enable other ways of improving rail capacity ­ including at lower speed - to be fully assessed, remains very strong.”

Sir Jeremy Heywood, the head of the civil service, is currently conducting a review of HS2 to try to ensure it stays within its £55bn budget.

As part of the efficiency plan, the line will now stop at Sheffield Midland instead of Meadowhall in order to save £1bn, although the West Yorkshire Combined Authority has criticised the proposals.

A recent report from the Public Accounts Committee found that HS2 has still failed to provide a clear completion date for phase 1 of the project or a cost for phase 2. It is also not yet clear if the project will be cancelled because of funding shortfalls as a result of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.

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Michael Wand   23/09/2016 at 11:05

Maybe HS2 needs the uber-speeds it is planning to compensate for the interchange penalties between HS2 and the city centre stations of Nottingham, Derby, Sheffield, Bradford and Leeds and in London between Euston and St Pancras, the City, Liverpool St, Canary Wharf or anywhere south of the Thames.

John Grant   23/09/2016 at 12:41

Yes, it'd be much better for lines to go through city centres, as the Great Central did through Nottingham -- and planned to through London (after Marylebone it was supposed to go under the Thames and then on to the Channel Tunnel, pity Beeching closed it before the latter was built). However, in London at least, the idea seems to be they terminate at the edge so cross-London journeys need two changes (as with Crossrail and Crossrail 2). Thameslink points the way to how it should be done, though even that will need a change to go north of Bedford, Peterborough, or Cambridge. Kent to the Midlands stopping at Stratford, KGX/STP, and Old Oak Common would surely give much more benefit to more door-to-door journey times than terminating at Euston.

Gary   23/09/2016 at 13:40

Why so much infatuation with links to London? The rest of the UK is desperate for good rail links which will benefit the UK economy far more than HS2. It takes 3 & half hours to travel 210 miles from Newcastle to Birmingham and 2 hours to travel 95 miles from Manchester to Hull. The £55Bn should be spent on more beneficial projects elsewhere.

Rail Supporter   23/09/2016 at 13:47

I am not at all surprised by this article. I was very much a supporter of HS2 and was actually offered a position with the business. I realised very quickly that the majority of the leadership team within HS2 are ex-Network Rail employees who have left NwR in the position that it is now; with bust CP5 budgets and undeliverable CP6 commitments, a complete lack of ability to deliver projects and no leadership or delivery capability. Any professional who values their career will very quickly realise that HS2 will end up precisely where NwR Infrastructure Projects is (in a complete mess) and keep as far away from HS2 as possible. That's why the leader with the initials 'SK' is leaving to join Rolls-Royce after realising his previous team couldn't deliver a pizza; never mind programmes of work safely & efficiently. Review of the existing NwR infrastructure, it's 'apparent' capacity levels and better technological solutions is a much better option. NwR needs a top-down review of how it works with it's under-utilised infrastructure and unjustifiably poor delivery record on efficient value in project delivery. This would realise much better options than the huge HS2 proposals that are being led by exactly the same people who got NwR in it's current mess.

Hoard   23/09/2016 at 13:48

I travel regularly on the West Coast Line from London Euston to Liverpool. It's one of the earliest lines built with many curves, junctions and stations putting a limit on capacity and speed. To seriously upgrade it would mean years of disruption and we'd still be left with a line struggling to meet demands. We need a new fast line all the way to Scotland which was the original idea.

John Burns   23/09/2016 at 14:09

The design is flawed in only running to FOUR cities directly centre to centre. It predominately serves just London. No studies are showing overall economic growth for the UK. HS3 does show growth. The solution is uprate all the four mainline running north from London removing bottlenecks. Have the west to east HS3 branching into three of these existing mainlines. As HS3 would need a lot of new track, obviously make this high-speed track with high-speed trains. The problem with high speed rail tracks is that train technology overtook it, rendering the tracks unnecessary. HMG does not see this.

HS3   23/09/2016 at 14:25

They are great comments John; thank you. Follow us at @HS3Ltd on Twitter! #HS3

Graham Nalty   23/09/2016 at 14:36

Some very sensible points have been made by previous respondents. There is a lot wrong in the manner in which HS2 has been developed. Are 400m trains really necessary, even through they do not fit into the rest of the network? Is 400 kmph a sensible speed aspiration when it severely limits the choice of routes? Are European gauge trains really necessary when the only UK trains that reach Europe are the Eurostars which can within the British loading gauge? And no connection is planned between HS2 and HS1. We need to build HS3 first linking Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield Bradford, Leeds and Hull - and then extend to Stoke, Derby, Nottingham, Middlesbrough and Newcastle. Train services to London are fast enough. Between our Northern cities they are far too slow.

Michael Wand   23/09/2016 at 15:01

Following on from Messrs Burns and McNalty, try:

Just Do It   23/09/2016 at 15:41

HS2 is more about capacity than raw speed, but if you are going to add a new line, making it a fast one is better than a slow one as we already have slow ones. This country's railways are desperately short of capacity, but just doing upgrades is not enough - the very expensively upgraded West Coast Mainline is now full again and cannot be sensibly upgraded again. So new lines are the only answer. It is interesting to note that the Great Central Mainline, from London to Nottinghamshire, had parliamentary approval in 1893 and was opened in 1898. Similarly, HS1 was approved in 1996 and fully opened in 2007. HS2 was first proposed in 2009, but construction doesn't start until 2017 and the full line isn't finished until 2033. Have we forgotten how to do big projects ? All the endless studying and questioning of this project is just making the existing railway worse - just get on with it and then move onto the next project. The sooner HS2 is built, the sooner we can start on HS3 (and HS4, HS5 and so on).

Chris M   24/09/2016 at 02:27

Quote "Andrew Tyrie told Chris Grayling that the DfT has failed to “comprehensively examine” whether increasing conventional rail capacity would offer better value for money". Andrew Tyrie is quite clearly ignorant of the fact that the DFT employed Atkins consultants to review the alternative enhancements that could be undertaken to the existing network. This work started in 2009 and the final assessment was published by government in 2013 (updated to include only phase 1 being built). It can be found here: HS2 provides far more capacity than any possible upgrade of the Victorian era railways ever could and the trains will be far more reliable - that alone is a good enough reason to proceed. The generations coming after us will not be impressed if we fail to plan properly for their future by skimping on costs and adding silly speed restrictions on the route. The DFT has previously published business cases showing very compelling evidence that high speed (or more to the point shorter journey durations) more than pays for itself in economic terms compared to a 125mph limited system. Again, this has all been published in the public domain. All modern long-distance passenger railways created today are built for high speed. Building to an antiquated standard would be very irrational. Finally remember that the conservative business case for HS2 assumed that passenger numbers would flatline just four years after phase 2 opened. A more realistic 15 years of growth (experienced by SNCF on many routes) means that HS2 would easily reach the 'Very High Value' classification.

David Winter   24/09/2016 at 06:18

There is no doubt that extra capacity is needed to supplement the WCML. The enduring question has been: "how." Politically, this is an "historic opportunity." As rightly asked above, does Britain NEED 400km/h and the infrastructure associated. Perhaps what Britain needs is to reactivate underutilised assets, joining them together where needed with totally new rights-of-way. That comment includes across the North. Where 400km/h might be worthwile is Anglo-Scottish, but the traffic is just not there. So, the real way forward is to set the priority Anglo-Scottish route as Glasgow via Edinburgh and Newcastle, using tilt trains capable of 300km/h on 200/225 untilting routes, using ERTMS and ETCS for safeworking. The secondary route would be via Manchester and Leicester. In this manner, the WCML load can be lightened to provide paths from the North of England, including Blackpool. After that, a reworking of some ex GCR and GWR alignments, plus new infrastructure could be specified to create a new Anglo-Scottish route via Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Chester, Liverpool, Blackpool and Preston. Again, untilted design to 225km/h, tilting to 400km/h especially on new right-of-way. Plus a renewed route to Manchester (GCR). The main London interchanges would be at Old Oak Common and Euston/St Pancras. Post-Brexit, I suspect through running with HS1 will become pointless. But IMHO, the platform/car arrangements of Eurostar are awkward and unsatisfactory. I'd be proposing an enlarged but compatible loading gauge, and a platform height of either 915 or 1100mm ARL. Existing Pendolinos, IC225s, IEPs and heritage fleet HSTs could use the new routes without difficulty. A key to this alternative concept is that renewed or newly built rights-of-way are kept as separate from intensively used current infrastructure as possible to prevent works delay contagion like has afflicted users of London Bridge related routes. Bit it is an incremental approach that seeks to abstract traffic from overloaded sections asap. For example, as Crossrail comes on stream as the Elizabeth Line, paths into Paddington could be reallocated to Birmingham, Chester and North Wales trains if the GC/GW line through OOC was brought up to par. As this line was resignalled to ERTMS/ETCS, so runtime improvements would be accrued, and as sections were electrified, IEPs could be assigned .... then dual mode tilters. A strategy to divert all freight from the Welwyn viaduct, and to improve performance on the Finsbury Park - Stevenage via Hertford North route (again ERTMS/ETCS) would provide the extra paths for the KX-Glasgow via Edinburgh trains. So, IMHO HS2 is an expensive vanity project where adequate opportunities exist to achieve the mid-term objectives. That's not to say that corridors should not be reserved now for mid-century needs .... but it is to say that those corridors need not have 400km/h non tilting geometry.

Realist   24/09/2016 at 15:10

The Atkins study quoted by Chris M states that its purpose is "to provide additional evidence to support government’s consideration of the investment case for High Speed 2." The various options "were assessed using the PLANET framework model developed by HS2 Ltd specifically for assessing the HS2 Proposition." Neither of these statements give confidence that the study was unbiased. There appears to have been no proper estimate of the cost of building a 400kph line compared to lower speed alternatives. HS2's oft quoted estimate that it "only costs 9% more" than building a 200kph line is risible, particularly given the scheme now proposed. German and Italian train operators are now seeing the sense of buying trains designed for 250kph maximum and on any rational argument this would be more than sufficient for Britain. If capacity is the problem we need to adopt a flexible approach that can deliver cost-effective solutions before 2033 to those places in greatest need. People at the top of HS2 have claimed that capacity increases with speed. That just shows what a flawed and disingenuous an organisation it is and why no-one should take anything it says at face value.

David Mundy   24/09/2016 at 15:19

I think hs2 is 25 years too late, instead we should improve the roads, maybe build new motorways along the side of existing ones and if hs2 is now just about capacity, re open the central line and just build hs3.This country is not big enough to make hs2 worth it.

John Burns   24/09/2016 at 16:19

There is only a capacity problem south of Milton Keynes on the WCML, which has twice the traffic of the ECML. Passenger number are now flat-lining. The WCML has the Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Wolverhampton and Birmingham trains on it. When a full high-speed HS3 is built the Mcr train can run up the MML and west on HS3. The Wolves & B'ham trains can run back on the Chiltern Line, when all mainlines are properly uprated. Capacity solved. We should do the OPPOSITE of HS2. Take the slow local & regional rail off the mainlines by opening old and building new lines - this is where the NEED is. Then we are left with 4 expressways. These can run up to 160mph giving journey times not far short of HS2 times. We then kill two birds with one stone. This approach gives the best bang-form-buck.

John Grant   24/09/2016 at 16:34

New "slow local" lines would no doubt suffer less from nimbyism -- folks will be much more accepting of a railway if the trains stop in their village.

Frank   31/10/2016 at 09:15

HS2 between Crewe and Wigan is offered as the solution to the severe need for freight capacity on the WCML. Since HS2 is a passenger only line, it can only offer additional freight capacity if passenger trains are transferred from the WCML to HS2. Unfortunately there are relatively few of these, and some will have to remain to service Liverpool, Runcorn and Warrington. The alternative, to upgrade the WCML to full four track status, would cost half of the HS2 link to the WCML at Golborne and provide greatly enhanced freight capacity and other benefits.

Hayden Matthews   21/06/2017 at 09:28


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