"We should build HS2"

PUBLISHED: 28 Aug 2015

AUTHOR: Jake Unsworth

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With the news that the government plan to commence building the controversial HS2 rail network as early as 2017 [Ref: The Times], the debate about whether the UK should embark on such a large and expensive infrastructure project has ignited once again. Almost 230 years since Trevithick’s pioneering steam locomotive journey of 10 miles in 4 hours in South Wales [Ref: BBC News], it will be possible to travel hundreds of miles between London and Manchester in under 70 minutes – halving the current travel time, and between Leeds and London in well under 2 hours. [Ref: BBC News]. Supporters contend that building HS2 will be economically worthwhile, not least by helping to improve Britain’s creaking infrastructure – ranked 27th in the world according to a recent study – but also that it will ease congestion and reduce pollution [Ref: Guardian]. Moreover, fundamental to their argument, is that the new rail network will be economically beneficial for cities in the North and the Midlands – so much so that Transport Secretary Patrick McLaughlin states that: “HS2 will change the transport architecture of the north. But it will also change the economic architecture” [Ref: The Times]. Despite this, opposition to the project is both broad and robust – with environmental concerns combined with the fact that the project will cost somewhere in the region of £50 billion and – as the 2033 timeframe suggests – take over 15 years to build [Ref: Spectator] being of particular concern. With these arguments in mind, does HS2 symbolise the kind of ambition the UK needs, facilitating growth in the North as supporters suggest? Or, is it better to spend the money on improving the current rail network? Should Britain build HS2?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

What are the economic arguments?
A key argument that advocates make, is that HS2 will transform the economies of the Midlands and the North. Journalist Larry Elliot uses the examples of Berlin during the period of 1880 and 1914, and Canary Wharf as examples of the rejuvenation that occurs with investment in public transport infrastructure [Ref: Guardian]. Evidence of the economic benefits of HS2 is highlighted in reports which claim that the project would enable economic growth in areas such as Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds – and some estimates suggest that the West Midlands area will gain most from HS2, with economic output expected to rise from £1.5bn to £3.1bn by 2037 [Ref: BBC News]. In a similar vein, others point to the potential for jobs and redevelopment in London, with Andrew Adonis claiming that the area west of Paddington station could see as many as many as 24,000 homes built, and in excess of 55,000 jobs created [Ref: City AM]. Another key argument for supporters, is that linking large northern cities such as Manchester and Leeds with London via high speed rail, will help curtail the economic dominance of London, and create a “Northern Powerhouse” as Chancellor George Osborne suggests [Ref: Telegraph]. However opponents Allister Heath and Ian Jack question this thinking – remarking instead that evidence suggests that the link is likely to benefit London more, as the “wealthier metropole” [Ref: Telegraph], meaning that, “the likely consequence of HS2 is to turn northern cities into far flung London suburbs, rather than places with their own dynamic economies” [Ref: Guardian]. The current price tag of £50bn is broadly equivalent to six London Olympics, three Heathrow runways or alternatively 3 years’ of the UK’s research and development expenditure [Ref: spiked], and is perhaps the largest area of criticism. In this respect, for sceptics, HS2 represents, “a political vanity project without historic parallel” [Ref: Guardian]. This, one commentator argues, is because money could be spent on a broader range of badly needed rail investment, which would benefit more people around the country, and improve Britain’s trains which are currently, “a European embarrassment” [Ref: Guardian].

Environmental considerations
Environmental concerns are also important in this discussion. As one advocate puts it: “Once completed, 18 trains an hour, each taking 1,100 passengers, will run from northern cities to London and vice versa, taking nearly ten million car journeys off the road” [Ref: Guardian]. Government research has corroborated this, suggesting that HS2 would transfer over 13 million journeys from the air and roads, including removing lorries from busy routes [Ref: BBC News]. The principles behind public transport are simple; reduced pollution, eased congestion and improved environmental prospects; HS2 is a vital part of the UK’s strategy in this regard, hence its inclusion in the ‘environment’ section of the coalition agreement of 2010 [Ref: Guardian]. However, despite these arguments, some are still critical of the broad environmental impact that HS2 will have. The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee for example, concluded that, “there is some debate about whether HS2 will deliver a reduction in emissions… at best, the savings are likely to be relatively small.” [Ref: Guardian] Moreover, notwithstanding proposals to ensure that the environment is protected as much as possible, through the introduction of wild havens, green bridges and natural areas along the route of HS2 [Ref: Wildlife Trusts], doubts remain about the negative impact HS2 will have. With a report at the end of 2013 finding that 32 hectares of ancient woodland, 4,800 hectares of farmland, and 250 acres of forest would need to be destroyed during construction [Ref: The Times] viewed by some as particularly damaging. Others worry about the impact to people’s homes along the proposed route - with over two thousand properties, and the people that live in them, potentially disturbed during construction [Ref: Financial Times], resulting in the government creating a compensation scheme for affected homeowners [Ref: BBC News].

Over 50 years ago, in 1964, Japan pioneered high-speed rail with their Shinkansen network [Ref: Wikipedia], and for advocates, showing this level of ambition is a key reason why the UK should build HS2. One Times editorial remarks: “Progress is popular, and investment begets progress”, going on to argue that in spite of opposition: “We must invest with courage and foresight to prosper in the future. The whole country deserves high speed rail.” [Ref: The Times] Furthermore, far from being a vanity project, it is argued that HS2 represents a plan which may act as a spur to bring Britain’s railway infrastructure into the modern age [Ref: spiked] – as well as easing the pressure on rail services after a doubling of passenger numbers in the past two decades [Ref: Guardian]. Opponents though dismiss these claims, contending that aside from all of the associated problems with cost and disruption: “It’s an outdated project, the answer to last century’s transport question”. Instead, they note that real technological innovation such as conference calling, means that: “If the digital revolution continues apace, most of us won’t make this journey at all” [Ref: Spectator], because we will not need to. So, how should we view the building of HS2? Does it represent ambitious infrastructure planning for 21st century rail travel, or is it an unnecessary and costly project that will do more harm than good?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


Full speed ahead

The Times 16 July 2015

HS2: if they build it, will people come?

Larry Elliott Guardian 28 June 2015

High Speed 2: an impoverished debate

James Woudhuysen spiked 16 September 2013


Folly of £50bn HS2 project must hit the buffers

Jeremy Paxman Financial Times 15 May 2015

How HS2 has blighted my parents’ lives

Melissa Kite Spectator 6 December 2014

HS2: this environmental report should be the final blow

Stanley Johnson Guardian 7 April 2014


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

The HS2 debate is over: time to embrace the benefits

Andrew Adonis City AM 20 July 2015

Scrap HS2 to put Britain on the internet fast track

Nic Fildes The Times 15 July 2015

HS2 is not a useless railway: merely the stupidest

Simon Jenkins Guardian 2 June 2015

The anti tarmac vote

Economist 18 April 2015

High Speed Rail: make haste, slowly

Guardian 16 April 2015

Problems down the line

Economist 10 January 2015

How the Shinkansen bullet train made Tokyo the monster it is today

Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku Guardian 30 September 2014

HS2: 12 arguments for and against

BBC News 24 September 2014

Labour must scrap HS2 to avoid a rail disaster

Damian McBride The Times 19 August 2014

Working on the railway

Economist 26 July 2014

What’s the point of HS2?

Christian Wolmar London Review of Books 17 April 2014

Fast train to nowhere?

George Monbiot Monbiot.Com 17 May 2010


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


MORAL MAZE: Nimbyism and HS2

BBC Radio 4 2 February 2013

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