All aboard the great high speed experiment

Featured Image: by Clare Louise Jackson via ‘Shutterstock

By Professor Iain Docherty

After much prevarication, an inquiry, a dissenting report, a scurrilously timed last-minute leak, and perhaps most remarkably of all the first public spat between the Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his chief adviser Dominic Cummings, the government has made the decision to proceed with all of the currently planned phases of the High Speed 2 railway. The rail industry is delighted, having scooped the largest infrastructure investment in a generation or more: HS2 not only provides a continental standard high-speed line to/from London, Manchester and Leeds with trains running at up to 200mph, but it also releases huge amounts of capacity on existing routes that will no longer have to juggle intercity trains with local services and freight.

Impressive headline journey times like 67 minutes from London to Manchester do indeed, as one journalist put it, offer up the potential to change the mental map of the UK (or at least large parts of England). But as for all transport projects, there will be losers as well as winners. This is because of the ‘two-way street’ effect: putting Birmingham city centre as close to central London in terms of travel time as the outer fringes of the capital itself will certainly make it a more attractive business destination for some activities; equally, bosses in the London HQs of other firms might wonder whether they need to keep their regional offices at all when the majority of their clients will become accessible from London in the time it takes to do a tube trip across town.

Mayors of the biggest city regions such as Andy Street in the West Midlands and Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester think that on balance, HS2 is a significant net positive for their areas, especially given its leverage of other transport improvements such as the so-called Northern Powerhouse Rail upgrades that aim to radically improve east-west rail links across the North. But the main risk of HS2 is that it could become the biggest and best example of the truism that transport infrastructure investment is better at moving the economy around rather than growing it overall. Leaders in Merseyside and the North East will be especially worried that their regions will be at increasing competitive disadvantage as they get relatively much further away from London compared to those locations on the core HS2 network. Ask yourself this: as a young creative industries sector start-up company in Liverpool outgrows its first premises, how much more attractive is the move to a bigger studio in Manchester rather than one around the corner given the extra market access it would bring via its direct HS2 connection?

Then there is the further issue of getting to and from HS2 stations. Transport within city regions is perhaps the most obvious area on infrastructure in which Britain falls (far) short of the standards commonplace in its competitor economies. As Tom Forth’s work for PIN on the real effective size of Birmingham showed, the labour markets of British cities are much less extensive than might be assumed because of the time it takes to make the kinds of everyday journeys that dwarf the longer distance trips HS2 will accommodate. Much more prosaic interventions such as support for better, more frequent and reliable bus networks might turn out to make more of a difference to the UK’s productivity than a £70bn railway.