Our high speed rail future


Will high speed trains make the UK more productive?

Will the HS2 high speed rail project, with its £32bn price tag, add up to a good deal for Britain's economy?

That was the question I addressed in a Newsnight film last night. But here's another question - what was a technology correspondent doing reporting on a transport story?

The answer is that many of the arguments for and against this project depend on how you see the future of our working lives, and what impact technological change may have on all of us over the next couple of decades.

Will we be speeding from one end of Britain to the other in a couple of hours on Japanese-style bullet trains, our economy transformed by the productivity boost we get from not wasting so much time travelling?

Or will we not need to leave home because we can meet up with friends and colleagues via video conference technology so advanced that it will feel as though we are in the same room?

In other words, the choice appears to be between high speed trains and high speed broadband as the key to faster growth.

Connected future

The case for HS2 depends partly on the idea that time spent on the train is unproductive, so that if you can make the journey shorter there will be big productivity gains for the economy.

The government document setting out the cost/benefit analysis puts the value of that time saving at £7.3bn by 2043 - and that's just for the section running from London to Birmingham.

Start Quote

Every time they built a railway, the country changed for the better”

End Quote Pete Waterman Record producer

But when I got on a train at Birmingham International, I found plenty of passengers - in First Class at least - who appeared to disprove that theory.

With free wi-fi on the train, they were hunched over their laptops and smartphones, busy working rather than idling away the journey.

"It's like the office in some ways," one passenger, Brian Lewis, told me:

"I'm on the internet so I'm connected with the office so I'm doing some work, preparing for meetings, reflecting on meetings or doing some expenses even. But it's not dead time."

If the HS2 project does go ahead the journey to London will be cut to just 49 minutes by 2026.

But the passengers I met did not seem too excited by that - Roisif Wilson, who spends some of the week shuttling between offices in Birmingham, was not convinced that the money would be well spent.

"We use the internet for conference calls anyway," she said. "We're living in a much more technological age and I think it would be good to invest in better wi-fi for more people. It's not a significant enough difference for the investment."

To get a glimpse of the way we all may work a few years from now, we visited Matt Millar at his home in Thame in Oxfordshire, a few miles from the proposed HS2 route.

Concept image of high-speed train The new line - and high-speed trains - would cut the London to Birmingham journey time to 49 minutes

We found him running his small software company and talking to four colleagues spread across South East England, all from his computer.

I asked his team, gathered on a Skype video call, whether they wanted fast broadband or fast trains.

A good internet connection seemed to be the priority - although one person called for high speed broadband on high speed trains.

That argument did not wash with one of HS2's most fervent supporters, Pete Waterman. The record producer, who commutes three times a week from his Warrington home to his London studio down the West Coast mainline, is passionate and knowledgeable about the railways.

Leap of faith

Broadband, he told us, only made money for the telephone companies, it did not produce jobs, while HS2 would deliver employment and an economic boost right across the country. "Build it and they will come," he insisted.

And Professor David Begg, who is rallying support amongst the business community for HS2, said the vision of a connected future where we did not need to travel had been oversold.

"In the last decade we've probably had the fastest rate of technological progress that we've ever seen and yet we've seen a 50% increase in rail travel," he explained.

"New forms of communication bring people into contact with so many more people - and they actually want to go and meet them!"

The economics of high speed rail seem to depend on an awful lot of unknown unknowns. Even its biggest fan Pete Waterman says "the numbers never add up for railways. If you're going to do figures don't do your railway. You can sit down and make 50 arguments for, you can make 50 arguments against."

But, he says, look back into history. "Every time they built a railway, the country changed for the better."

Predicting the impact of technology on society is a mug's game. Look back 25 years, and who was forecasting the rise of the internet - or the resurgence of rail?

So in the end it may come down to a leap of faith, rather than a rigorous analysis of how reduced journey times and less congestion on the roads weigh up against the cost to the public purse and the potential damage to the environment.

If, however, you want some further reading matter to bolster your arguments for or against HS2, click on the links below.

This is the Department for Transport's assessment of the economic case.

Here's an assessment for the Transport Select Committee carried out by the Oxera consultancy.

And here's the Institute of Economic Affairs, a free market think tank, demolishing the business case.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Having been closely involved with many national and international projects this proposal has all the signs of a doomed project with little to commend it except for the potential for a much needed boost for the civil engineering industry and some remaining but diminishing potential for political spin.
    Lets promote something actually needed in the UK like major tidal schemes for energy generation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    To elaborate. Some have argued people will still travel adn we don't need faster internet. Well, with the speed and new uses that have arrived in the last 20 odd years for the internet, perhaps we will. HS2 still won't serve that many. Perhaps regional rail investment would be better. Also, I'm sure taxpayers wouldn't mind better internet based media.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    If given the choice: HS2 or better broadband, I'd choose broadband. While HS2 would be nice to have, it would only service the few. All railways lead to London if you will. I'm also afraid, partially due to the expense, it will become like a higher 1st class. Broadband though, would service far more people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Come on, people. Video conferencing on computers is old news. Communication is now transferring to laptops, mobiles and tablets, so travel will not be reduced. On the contrary, people will see it as very efficient to combine necessary train trips with virtual meetings.

    Next time you go on a train, count the number of people you see with a Blackberry, or a tablet (ipad, etc.)

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    What people miss with HS2 is that the very earliest piece of the line (London to Birmingham) won't be delivered for 15 years. Think how much communications technology development there has been in the last 15 years. Were you using the internet in 1996? Or videoconferencing on your PC...? In HS2, we are trying to compete using 19th C technology when we should be embracing the future.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    I fail to see how two lines are going to solve the overcrowding crisis on the whole network. Full electrification and longer trains would solve the problems sooner. Then with the speed increase it could be looked at where the demand for a hs2 is. I don't think it should just be for those in London. What about a HS2 that first links the whole of the north before building a London link?

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Video conferencing has been around for yonks, and unless you insist on seeing everyone in glorious 1080p HD, it works fine over a basic ADSL link. Giving everyone higher internet connection speeds is not going to let you do anything you can't do right now, and all the time rail travel is going up. Ridiculous, non-starter of an argument, like all the other luddite anti-HS2 drivel.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    High speed trains to the capital.?..
    This will only make the "Concrete Hive" of London grow even larger.
    One must ask if this is desirable, especially with high speed broadband getting faster.
    This centre of power and finance (The Concrete Hive), London must be fed at all cost...Just like a real hive in nature...It Doesn't produce anything but just consumes and is full of Offices and Computers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Perhaps we should conduct a simulation and establish which is better instead of all this NIMBY stuff. We have canals,then trains,air travel according to some all this can go down a broadband wire its about as sick as the comment.No thinking deserves no comment.Can U go to funeral down the e mail.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    The sorts of people who could benefit from HS2 and will be able to afford its tickets will be the same people who will find it as cheap to get in a helicopter and if you take into account travel times to and from the train station i bet on a helicopter being quicker and cheaper.
    So that leaves the rest of us who don't need or want it paying for another white elephant

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Oh come on please Pete Waterman do yourself a favour and stop being so stupid the internet not making jobs? ask google or Skype or ask many many other companies who are clearly not internet providers yet have provided millions of new jobs.
    The fact is most people now do not take the train because its far too expensive more expensive than taking your car and it certainly does not go door to door.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Excellent programme. interesting to hear D Begg say trains are overcrowded on Thursday and Friday night. This is down to ticket pricing and £33bn is a lot of money to solve a problem on 2 trains a week that could be solved by pushing a button. Overcrowding is primarily on commuter trains into cities, not long distance. HS2 long distance figures will not help overcrowded commuters.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Unfortunately the BBC wont let me post a long enough comment to answer all the questions here.
    By 2035 we will need another north south rail line to deal with capcity and population increase. Start building it when we need it and its not ready till 2055 too late....

    And for the record, HS1 was built on time and under budget. No existing line can be upgraded with a good value for money, end of.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Ealing Council Labour councillors have rejected Conservatives' motion, urging council to join the 51M group, which is collective of 14 councils united against HS2.
    Ealing's Liberal Democrats have already expressed their support for HS2. Five month public consultation ends next Friday (29).
    Nice touch this public consultation...

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Apparently, first 5 miles from Euston to junction at Old Oak Common, in East Acton, would be through a tunnel, which adds @ 1/4 of overall costs. Is the only way to go, through a tunnel? Department for Transport maintains system will generate £44B in economic benefits. Govt sees railways as a way of driving economic growth, improving connectivity & providing a cleaner/greener alternative.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) published a detailed report this week criticising the £32billion plans for High Speed Two (HS2) to connect London to Birmingham - with ONLY 1 WEEK TO GO before public consultation closes. It branded the plans as a "political vanity project" which will cost each taxpayer £1,000.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    By replacing all of the 1st class carriages with standard class, you could increase the west coast lines seating capacity by 25% pretty
    much over-night.

    This then begs the question why should ordinary 'hard working household' taxes have to be used to build a new line just so that a wealthy few can travel by 1st class!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    The last goverment turned down a fully funded private HS2 preposal from Birmingham -> Heathrow -> Read Hill then using the ashford line to the tunnel. The preposal was for lorry freight trains to birmingham hub, park and ride for gatwick and heathrow etc.

    But the proposal that would have been built by now was turned down as it didnt fit with the 10year transport plan.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    It's astonishing that the Government has ignored the fact that there's now wi-fi on most commuter trains and that people can work while travelling. Nor has it considered videoconferencing, which is just starting to take off. Prof Begg talks about looking back into history. Let's live in the present! This is the age of the internet. There may have been a case for HS2 in the 70s. Not any more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    The DfT Economic case uses a growth rate of only 1.4% when real growth has been going at an average of 5% per annum - EVEN THROUGH THE RECESSION. Rail travel grew 15% in the past 3 years whilst air travel dropped. The DfT business case also ignores a lot of the potential for air travel to switch - as it fails to connect Heathrow early enough.

    Oxera and the IOE are on the wrong planet!


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