Support for High Speed Rail in Britain

Strange as it may seem when you do the basic arithmetic, there is strong support from the three main political parties in the UK for the HSR proposal, and if our first article in this series argues that the reasoning behind it is heavily flawed, it is important in these matters to present the arguments of those who may not agree. Here you have some extensive extracts from a group, Greengauge 21, that have aggressively argued for the HSR proposal. We leave it to your attention. Beyond what you see here they have a more detailed leaflet outlining their arguments which you can have here – “HS2 — why the critics are wrong“. And once again, we welcome your comments.

High-Speed Rail


So what is high-speed rail? Well, it will be a new high-quality ultra-reliable train service linking the major cities in Britain. New high-speed trains will operate on new tracks at over 300 km/h (200 miles per hour) and above, and will also run onto the existing rail network to serve a wide range of destinations.

High speed rail technology is well-proven and already operates in a number of countries across the world. The first high-speed train was the Shinkansen in Japan, which opened in 1964. France followed with its first TGV line in 1981. Other countries with high speed railways now include Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Spain, Italy and South Korea.

The UK’s first high speed railway, High Speed 1, linking London with the Channel Tunnel opened fully in November 2007. High Speed 1 is having a major impact on travel between the UK and continental Europe, with Eurostar services that have cut journey times from London to Paris, Brussels and beyond

The case for high-speed rail is compelling:

  • It can provide considerable additional transport capacity, which forecasts show will be sorely needed in the future
  • High speed rail can deliver a step-change improvement in journey times
  • It is an environmentally-sustainable solution to the country’s transport needs
  • By providing effective links between city regions and international gateways, high speed rail can boost economic development across the country, but particularly in the Midlands, the North and Scotland, and potentially in Wales and the South West too.

A national HSR network could transform accessibility across Britain, as our HSR accessibility slideshow illustrates.

Download our fact sheets to find out more about high-speed rail and the case for its development:

We are planning future fact sheets on the following topics:

  • HSR technology
  • International experience on HSR
  • HSR and capacity
  • HSR and the environment
  • HSR and the economy
  • Alternatives to HSR
  • What’s in it for the passenger?
  • HSR and the existing rail network

Fact Sheets

Executive Summary

A prime argument used by the opponents of HS2 is that „the business case doesn’t stack up‟. This report looks at the arguments as articulated by one of those who takes this view.

He argues that:

1. Growth is being over-estimated, so the benefits of HS2 will not be so great as supposed;

2. Economic regeneration in provincial cities served by HS2 won‟t happen;

3. The environmental case is overstated, because domestic aviation is in decline and plainly, fast trains consume more energy and therefore have more carbon emissions;

4. Our railways are fast already, unlike other countries where a step change in journey time can be achieved;

5. The same capacity can be provided by upgrading existing lines;

6. The business case has some critical assumptions that overstate the value of the investment;

7. There is an opportunity cost which means that the existing railway will suffer asfunds will be diverted to the new railway.

We found that none of these arguments survived scrutiny.

Growth Forecasts

The travel market (across all modes) continues to grow, although at a lower rate than it did in earlier decades. When measured on a per capita basis there are signs of levelling off, but population growth (with increasing life expectancy and other factors) continues.

Demand for travel by rail has risen sharply (by over 40% in the last 15 years) and growth has continued (at a lower rate) through the period of recession. There is no sign that this trend, in which rail is increasing its market share will not continue – unless of course, its capacity is capped.

Economic Regeneration

There is a worry that the better connectivity HS2 brings will benefit the capital at the expense of the rest of the country. But the evidence is that this hasn‟t happened in France with its TGV network, and the evidence published so far suggests this won‟t happen in Britain either.

Environmental Benefits

High-speed trains do not consume vastly more energy than conventional intercity trains. Analysis of existing high-speed (300km/h) trains shows energy consumption levels similar or just 10% higher than the best performing of today‟s 200km/h intercity trains. The carbon advantage that rail has over air and private car travel will continue as high-speed rail is introduced.

Existing Speeds

With the exception of the Pendolino service on the West Coast Main Line, journey times are generally getting worse as the network gets more congested. Eventually, high-speed rail will cut journey times by an hour and a half; the first stage of HS2 between London and Birmingham can cut 30 minutes off a very wide range of journeys.


Upgrading existing lines – objectors to HS2 tend to favour „Rail Package 2‟ as assessed by DfT – increase capacity by only about four train paths/hour, a quarter of the path capacity of a new high-speed line. HS2 will also be able to take longer trains and allow existing lines to be used more efficiently as the „speed mix‟ is made more manageable. Other measures favoured by objectors such as putting more seats on existing trains are not the answer either. None of the alternatives examined to date offers value for money compared with HS2.

Business Case

All of the business case assumptions have all been clearly set out. The idea that the risks are all „downside‟ is wrong: with a 60-year asset life assumption, DfT assume that all demand growth stops just eight years after opening: a balanced, but certainly conservative assumption.

Opportunity Cost

The objection that investment in existing lines must suffer as scarce funds go into HS2 has not been borne out by the recent spending review which found money for both. The ability to sell a concession once HS2 is built has been proven by the case of HS1 (the Channel Tunnel Rail Link), recently let with a 30-year concession for £2.1bn. HS2 offers even bigger concession values for the Exchequer in future.


Chris Stokes‟ article reflects a number of the concerns raised by the anti-HS2 camp. Right now their objection is that “the business case doesn’t stack up”. Their points are probably not all covered by Stokes, but there is much common ground. Many of the arguments in Stokes‟ article relate to the business case. So do his arguments stack up – or is there really a „case against the case against‟?

We have looked at the arguments he used under the seven headings he used in his article.

On Growth Forecasts, he wrongly claimed that total travel in Britain declined over the period between 1995 and 2008; he is also very probably wrong in his reasoning on why long term trends may have shifted.

On Economic Regeneration, he offered no fresh evidence and refers explicitly to the results of research by Imperial College, when the authors of the work in question point  out it cannot be used as a valuation of the wider impacts of HS2. He should have checked this.

On Environmental Benefits, he ignored the role of airports on the near continent which serve as substitutes for London’s airports and so reaches the wrong conclusion on whether short haul air travel is increasing or diminishing.

He suggested that high-speed rail means much higher energy consumption (and carbon emissions) when the published evidence makes clear that this is not the case.

He talked about how in Britain, it is wrong to think of HSR ’Replacing a Third World Railway’. He’s surely right as of now, but all is not as rosy as he would have us believe.

He doesn’t admit that rail travel speeds across the national network are getting slower as the network fills up with increased train frequencies.

On Capacity, there is some common ground: he recognised this is a key problem. But he was wrong to say that alternatives to HS2 tested by DfT and favoured by anti-HS2 campaigners achieve nearly as much capacity as HS2 offers. They don‟t and all of the published work shows that a continued tinkering with today‟s network does not offer the value for money that HS2 provides.

When he turns to the Business Case, he draws several threads of his argument together and introduces a further argument, this time about the benefits for business travellers which he claims are over-stated. But this doesn’t follow either as we have explained: the business case for HS2 may well be strengthened by a refinement on this area of analysis.

Finally, under the heading Opportunity Cost, he frets about funding getting diverted from spending on the existing rail network. But the evidence so far, with serious money for the first time being allocated to HS2 in the recent spending review, suggests that this

Government at least, is alive to that risk and sees instead a need for a balance of  investment in new high-speed lines and complementary (existing) network enhancement.

And the leader of the Labour Party has very recently re-stated the priority that he accords to the development of the HSR network too.

The case against HS2 has not been made.

# # #

Thus spake Greengauge 21.


5 thoughts on “Support for High Speed Rail in Britain

  1. I believe Greengauge are wrong on the reasons behind increased travel times in the UK (which are not the same as lower speeds – speeds have not decreased anywhere). Journey times are increasing because of timetable padding so as to present the illusion of more trains being on time. The padding means trains which take a “normal” amount of time from one station to another have to wait outside main stations for a platform, because the timetable padding has been taken into account when allocating platforms at stations, and this causes more delay. More capacity at junctions and more platforms at main stations, as well as a more sensible approach to train performance (not padding out timetables which leads to slack operation, which leads to more timetable padding) will solve this problem much more cheaply.

    The issue of timetable planning and its impact on operations was explored in previous research I did on objectives in the UK rail timetabling process. I’m afraid that our findings on performance impacts were not published, the closest we got was a mention of the issues in Watson, Gillingwater & Boodoo (2003)

    Watson, R., Gillingwater, D. and Boodoo, A. (2003) Using network capacity effectively where train operators compete for paths – the UK experience, Proceedings of the World Congress on Railway Research, Edinburgh 2003

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention Support for High Speed Rail in Britain | World Streets --

  3. Greengauge only mention 300kph. But the line is being built to a standard which would allow 400kph. Is this justified ?

  4. For a comprehensive rebuttal of the Greenguage21’s case and further claim and counter claim please go to
    Readers will conclude that Greenguage21’s case is made up of qualitative assertion, whilst the case made by the other side is backed by quantitative facts and robust evidence. Proof of what opponents of HS2 have always felt; that if we can have a genuine, open debate on the case for and against, the facts will become plain for all to see. That HS2 will cost the country billions to build (£1250.00 for every household in the UK), and will require a subsidy to operate. A subsidy for the better off to get to Birmingham 20-30 minutes quicker is completely the wrong priority for Britain, particularly when it is clear that cheaper, greener solutions to the problem exist.

  5. (Eric asked that I re-post this from my blog so I have copied it directly. The post links back to these HSR posts on World Streets.)

    Should jealousy dictate policy? Talking Points Memo seems to suggest it should with their pro-rail “Jealous Yet America?” post. In a photo tour of high speed rail (HSR) trains around the world they ask if America is “jealous yet.” There isn’t much to say about phrasing transport policy debate like this, but we hear too often that we should build HSR because Europe is doing it or China is doing it and the US is in danger of getting left behind.

    I’ve never been sure of what we will be left behind, but I’ve seen it a number of places as the efficiency gap. Whatever that gap is it really depends on ridership and occupancy, plus you have to look at the types of trips made. In any event, I know Bambardier of Montreal is excited about the US proposal because actually they make high speed trains, unlike any US company. But I don’t think the US HSR is sold as being good for Canadian jobs.

    Obviously Talking Points Memo doesn’t set policy, but reviewing their slideshow and recent articles and comments from transit advocates it is pretty easy to see that many people think a valid reason to pursue policy is because some other country is doing it, and they are jealous. I think that’s a pretty silly reason to pursue any policy, yet alone a HSR network that may cost as much as $500 billion or more. For a more reasonable discussion of the pros and cons of HSR, read the current posts at World Streets here and here.

    Original post here:


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