The growing opposition to HS2 cannot be ignored any longer

1:43 pm - July 3rd 2013

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by Christian Wolmar

At last, opposition to the HS2 rail project is extending beyond the Chilterns and is starting a debate that should have been had three years ago.

There has always been something deeply worrying about the fact that all three main political parties are in support of the plan to build a high speed railway line linking London with Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds when the case is so weak and the cost so high. The parties have been outdoing each other in attempts to show that their support is unyielding in the face of growing evidence that the whole project is unsustainable.

But outside Parliament, informed opposition is growing. The National Audit Office is querying the figures, the New Economics Foundation has produced a list of better uses for £33bn (it was before the recent cost rise announcement which now suggests £50bn including rolling stock) and on the Right several think tanks are questioning the case for the line.

As the line’s supporters have become more desperate, they have been clutching at straws to justify the ever mounting cost of this massive project. First it was to speed up journey times and to improve the environment, then to boost capacity, then to bridge the north south divide and finally to create jobs and ‘agglomeration benefits’. But none of these stack up.

The environmental case collapsed when, early on, it was revealed that the effect would be carbon neutral according to the HS2 Ltd own study, when the impact of construction is taken into account.

The benefits in the business are based largely on journey time reductions made by those travelling when, in fact, these savings are largely illusory. Not surprisingly, the business case has looked weaker as the project has been scrutinised and the recent announcement of increased costs, bringing the scheme up to £50bn including rolling stock, was a further blow.

On the North South divide and regeneration, the experience of high speed lines around the world suggests that when two cities are linked, the bigger one is most likely to benefit – in other words, Britain will become even more London dominated. Prof John Tomaney of the School of Planning at University College London, who researched the effect of high-speed lines across the world, said: ‘The argument that high speed can reshape economic geography has been used in several countries around the world… but in practice there is very little evidence that building a high speed rail line heals north-south divides.’

As a long time supporter of the railways, I would love to throw my weight behind the project but right from the beginning it has been apparent that there is no real justification for such a massive expense. England is far smaller than France or Spain, with economic activity concentrated in an area already well served by fast and efficient trains.

Plus, the way that a swathe of excellent blocks of social housing will be demolished all because the cheaper option for Euston has been chosen is nothing short of a scandal. All the opposition has so far focussed on the Chilterns, but it is Camden council tenants who are most affected with the demolition of 600 homes and possibly more.

Ask any transport planner how they would spend £50bn in an effort to improve both transport and the environment, and HS2 will not be the answer. As Alistair Darling pointed out last week, there are far more congested trains on London commuter trains that desperately need expanded capacity. Trams, buses, even trolleybuses, as well as far better cycling and walking facilities would all do much more for the environment than this dubious expensive grand projet.

Labour is fearful that opposing the project would be seen as betraying its northern heartlands which it is claimed the project will help. In reality, the alleged benefits are tenuous at best and cheaper, more transformational public transport alternatives exist.

It is time the Labour Party start asking the same questions as Margaret Hodge and her colleagues on the Public Affairs Committee and take the lead on giving this project the proper scrutiny it deserves.

Christian Wolmar is a transport writer seeking the Labour nomination for the 2016 London mayor election.
On Twitter @christianwolmar and website

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Reader comments

1. Dissident

They’re spending all that money, so why not have maglev?

2. John Reid

Mandlesons against it now

3. Man on the Clapham Omnibus

2. John Reid

was he ever for it? He seemed like he was historically
luke-warm from my reading of the Guardian article

Christian says:

“At last, opposition to the HS2 rail project is extending beyond the Chilterns and is starting a debate that should have been had three years ago.”

This is half right. I looked back at what I (then a Labour councillor) said 4 years ago when Labour first announced the plans. I told my local (Lancashire) press that I was “broadly supportive” but that “the plans but added that the region’s existing railways would have to be upgraded if West Lancashire was to see benefits” and that “there is a risk that, in order to pay for the ‘prestige’ project of linking the major cities, resources may be drawn in from less high profile but equally, even more important, sub-regional developments like the Burscough Curves.”

By early 2010 I’d read the relevant research (the response to the paper was shot from the hip) and was firmly against HS2 (, because it was already very clear that the potential negative unintended impacts on Northern economies far outweighed possible advantages (Mandelson now refers to this as the “rail desert” problem though it’s not very accurate to do so).

From there it became increasingly clear that the new govt would do what it took to push the HSR case, even if this included direct lies about what research had been done on economic impacts (basically, they didn’t do anything on impacts on places more than 1 mile from the station, but said the had – audit trail on the lies process at and

So Christian is right to say there was no debate, but that wasn’t for lack of willing participants (and tha main opposition groups were not solely focused on environmental consideration either). It was because Labour and then the Coalition were simply unwilling/unable to have that debate, for the political “we must look modern” reasons to whuch Mandelson now refers in his FT piece.

It’s good that Mandelson has changed his mind, and that the consensus is now swinging against HS2 and in favour of local and sub-regional transport, but victory for evidence on this score should highlight for Labour in particular that it needs to do more than cosmetic listening exercises with its members and supporters. Just occasionally we know stuff.

5. Northern Worker

Didn’t I read somewhere that transport is an EU competence, and we have no choice about this because it’s an order from Brussels?

6. Dissident

@4 was competence a typo? Or did you mean something else, as I’m trying to connect EU and competence & failing!


No, you didn’t read that, it was just a figment of someone’s imagination.

Whether or not HS2 goes ahead is nothing to do with the EU, EP, ECHR or “Brussels”. Cut the paranoid claptrap.

They are not paying 50 billion up front! The cost is spread over 20+ years so is just over £2 billion per year.

I reckon all that money should be used to invest in a massive building programme (Homes).

Money to be made from building homes from planning, architects, building materials, trades man, removals, decorations, furniture, household appliances, rents, mortgages, council taxes and the list goes on and on and on.

Wheres the guarantees that after spending billions of pounds on a railway line money will flow after completion.

When I travel on trains all over the country they are only busy during the local rush hours, other than that they are almost empty.

Thousands of general public have from the start, read and talked about this scheme(and yes the majority) because it affected them .They were not just Nimbys but felt that they could not object if the country would benefit.The whole thing has never actually shown to have any merit.We have been name called ,then its speed,then capacity needed.None of these has any proof.We have found discrepancies in the data ,figures have been manipulated to show what they wanted not factual.Data has been kept from the public the list of failings goes on and on.At long last some that may influence the thinking of those spending the tax payers money have done as we did 2 years ago and looked at the details and seen what we saw that the scheme for HS2 is badly flawed.Let it be stopped now before more money is wasted and take the awful stress away from those woes lives are living under the awful cloud of having their homes destroyed and their lives ruined

11. Paul Bigland

Come on Christian, it’s time for a reality check. The opposition is ‘growing’? So why was the anti’s gathering in Stafford such a flop? In fact, what’s happened to their grassroots campaign? It’s dying, not flourishing. Despite Phase 2 being announced (affecting huge areas of the North)Only a handful of new anti groups have formed. Many of the existing ones in the Chilterns & SE are mere shells – one man and his dog operations. In truth the anti campaign is running out of foot soldiers and increasingly relies on voices like yours in the media.

If it wasn’t for those voices it would pretty much cease to exist.

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