Sunday, 8 January 2012


HS2, like many large projects, has polarized opinion amongst those that care. In this particular case the modern mediums of social media have boosted traditional media coverage to create a mess. Frequently the same claims are made, yet a fair analysis consider many of them to be little better than FUD - fear, uncertainty and doubt. And this refers to the tactics of both supporters and opponents. Lets examine some specifics.


"A new line from London to Birmingham"

True but incomplete, and misleading as a result. The whole project of HS2 is split into two phases, phase 1 is from London to Lichfield with a branch to Birmingham, while phase 2 extends the line to Manchester and Leeds. By describing it as "to Birmingham", a certain implication appears that there is no benefit to other cities from phase 1, something that isn't true. In fact, after the first phase of HS2 is open there will be through "classic compatible" services to other West Coast Main Line destinations, including Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow, all of which will see improved journey times with phase 1.

"32 billion pounds"

True, but also false, and thus a very clever trick. The first phase (London to Lichfield/Birmingham) costs 17 billion pounds, with phase 2 at 15 billion. Those opposed to HS2 have effectively managed to attach the 32 billion price to just phase 1, which is clearly false once the true numbers are understood.

"17 billion pounds"

True, but also intended to be scary. The actual investment required is actually supplied per year, not as a single amount in a single year. If the public is asked to spend less than 2 billion pounds per year on major infrastructure, they are far more likely to say yes than when presented with much larger single figures.

"We can't afford it"

False. The amount of money being spent (between 1 and 2 billion per year) is already being spent. The money is currently going on London's Crossrail project, another scheme with a total cost of 15 to 17 billion. The investment budget is effectively fixed at the 1 to 2 billion range (at the moment) and the flow of money simply shifts from Crossrail to HS2 when Crossrail finishes in 2017/8. That said, there is a body of thought that suggests that the total cost of 17 billion could actually be reduced if the money was spent more quickly (something other countries tend to do).

"The costs will over-run"

Possible, but unlikely. Predicting future costs of major infrastructure investment is always going to be tricky. To compensate, the Government insists on an "optimism bias" amount to handle under-estimates. What this means is that the cost quoted (17 billion) already includes a 60% buffer for cost overruns. The impact of the optimism bias can be seen here, where the Crossrail Paddington station contract reportedly came in 40% under-budget.

"The countryside/villages will be destroyed"

Simple scaremongering use of words. HS2 is best compared with a new motorway, the M40 being the classic example in this case. Anyone who has travelled that route cannot fail to have noticed the huge great scar in the landscape at Aston Rowant. It is wide, and the noise from the motorway affects a large area. HS2 is a dual track railway line which will take up far less land than a new motorway, and will use a long length of tunnel in the Chilterns. "Destroyed" is a scary, emotive term which drives fear rather than debate.

Rather strangely, the word "destroyed" does apply to part of the route, the expansion of Euston station in London, where a large number of homes and businesses will be demolished. However, the campaign there simply hasn't been widely heard, perhaps (dare one say) because those in the Chilterns have more money and better contacts.

"There is no alternative"

False in my view. This one is from the pro-HS2 camp. When used to discuss small improvements to the existing West Coast Main Line it is effectively true. The most recent Network Rail report (discussed from 7th January 2012) effectively dismisses every attempt to increase capacity without major new line construction on the grounds of insufficient capacity. However, the report did not evaluate the concept of focussed new line construction targeted at the worst hot-spots, built as a sequence of separate investments (described here). Thus, I claim that there is at least one alternative yet to be evaluated.

"HS2 will create 1 million jobs"

Utterly false. This is the worst of the pro-HS2 claims. It came from a Volterra report that made many assumptions and suggested that HS2, together with a boatload of other investment might support, not create, that many jobs. As a claim it was best demolished here.


The first casualty of way is the truth, and HS2 has continued to keep that claim true. Calm rationale analysis is hard to do (and impossible on Twitter), but it is essential given the scale of what is proposed and the impacts it will have to locals and nationally.

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