The case against HS2

  • Quentin Macdonald

The case against HS2

Quentin Macdonald, Systems Engineering Principal at HSUK, lets rip with his views on HS2

In evidence to the House of Commons HS2 Select Committee on November 30 2015, Professor Andrew McNaughton (then Technical Director of HS2) described the aim of the project: ‘The aim of the HS2 project is to deliver hugely enhanced capacity and connectivity between our major conurbations.’

That is a very desirable aim and if HS2 can deliver it, why should anyone challenge HS2? However, people from all walks have challenged HS2 very vigorously. The six principal challenges are Need, Cost, Scope, Capacity, Connectivity and Environment.

Challenge one – the need for HS2

For 68 years, overall passenger carryings on the UK rail network had declined steadily and by 1982 had reached a 20th Century all-time low of 630 million passengers per annum (Mppa). At that point rail’s fortune changed as passengers began to return, peaking at 822 Mppa in 1989, a rise of thirty per cent in seven years.

Just when things were looking positive, the six years to 1995 saw a decline of 11 per cent to 735 Mppa. But then rail’s fortunes were transformed. Apart from a minor fall of 0.7 per cent in 2010, every one of the 22 years reported since 1995 has seen continuing growth. By 2013-14 numbers had reached 1,559 Mppa passing for the first time ever, the historic all-time high of 1,543 Mppa reached in 1914, a hundred years earlier. The passenger figures for 2016-17 at 1,729 Mppa are up 135 per cent since 1995 and 174 per cent since 1982. Given the very different worlds of 1914 and 2014, there is an interesting doctoral thesis waiting to be written on rail’s revival.

The critics are wrong. The network had become overloaded and capacity growth was essential. Those figures form part of the backdrop which led the Government, in 2009, to announce its intention to build HS2; a new high-speed railway network for Britain.

Challenge two – the cost of HS2

In the public mind the cost of HS2 is already ‘exorbitant’ with no sign of it being under control. The project is unpopular because the public believes that the money should instead be spent on the NHS, schools, housing etc.

HS2 will cost billions more than most people believe that it should, particularly when comparing the average cost per mile with schemes abroad. On December 21 2015, in response to Parliamentary Question HL4189, the cost of HS2 Phase One was £156 million per double track mile calculated from the Government Funding Envelope figure quoted in the reply. The Government commissioned an independent estimate but gained no comfort when it reported in early 2017 that the cost would be £339 million per double track mile. That more than doubled the cost at a stroke, torpedoing HS2’s already shaky business case. A number of the reasons for the high cost of HS2 emerge in part two of this article.

Challenge three – scope

Objectors are often heard to complain that HS2 will be of no use to them. This appears to be true for the majority of the UK population, particularly for the 30 million people who live near enough to the proposed route to have a reasonable expectation that they might find HS2 beneficial. The problem stems directly from the current choice of the HS2 route and the kind of railway that HS2 is choosing to build.

HS2 Ltd believes that it needs to create:

A stand-alone line not integrated with the existing network to any meaningful extent. This is to ensure that operational perturbation on the existing network has no effect on HS2. They have failed to understand the value of creating and operating a single integrated national network with a fully integrated timetable. This is what the population as a whole wants and needs; not a separate stand-alone railway serving a handful of stations. If passengers can catch high-speed trains from their existing local hub stations they will flock to use them.

A very high-speed line with a design speed of 400 kph; faster than any other railway in the world. This is said to be needed for ‘future proofing’ – against what one asks? A 400 kph line requires a minimum radius of curvature of 7,800 metres. That dimension alone makes it very difficult to fit the new line into the landscape without significant consequential damage to housing and countryside alike.

A line built to UIC GC gauge with rolling stock to match. This means that the trains will be too wide and too tall to run on most of the existing UK intercity passenger network. The result is that a second fleet of Classic Compatible trains will be required to reach a limited number of ‘off network’ destinations. This is a completely unnecessary complication which responsible railway operators would avoid at all costs given the chance and is entirely against the interests of passengers.

Phase One of HS2 is to be built entirely in England. Excluding small states with fewer than ten million people, the population density of England alone (calculated separately from the overall UK figure) ranks it as the fifth most densely populated country in the world after Bangladesh, Taiwan, South Korea and Rwanda, making England the most densely populated country in Europe bar none.

Apart from HS1, the current maximum speed in the UK is 200 kph. Very respectable journey time reductions will be obtained by using a maximum speed of 300 kph and the railway will fit into the landscape of our crowded island far better, linking our closely spaced conurbations effectively. Despite the claims, HS2 Ltd does not seem to be interested in creating a network to serve the majority of our conurbations or our people. Instead, HS2 Ltd apparently sees its brief to be to design a railway more suitable for the wide-open spaces of North America, Asia and Australia where conurbations are widely spaced with few living in between.

When the motorway network was conceived it was designed as a high-speed supplement to the existing road network with vehicles able to switch from one network to the other at regular intervals. Had it been suggested that the motorways could only be used by vehicles which were captive to them and having no access to local roads, there would have rightly been an outcry and yet that is exactly the madness that HS2 Ltd is proposing. Nowhere does that happen with high-speed rail networks in other countries.

Capacity and connectivity

HS2 Ltd seems never to have stood back from its remit to ask itself what kind of railway system it should design in order to achieve Andrew McNaughton’s vision. For example, just what did he mean by ‘hugely enhanced capacity and connectivity’? Just how big is ‘huge’?

Does HS2 Ltd understand exactly where such enhancements will be most beneficial and have they developed tools to measure how well any given proposed design might deliver the benefits? It seems not, or they would not be proposing the monster that is HS2.

Challenge four – lack of capacity

HS2 Ltd states that their two-track high-speed line will be capable of delivering 18 high-speed train paths per hour (18 tpph) in each direction. This is a technically credible and reasonable claim. However, what is not reasonable is that all 18 paths had already been allocated by HS2 Ltd without a spade hitting the ground. This leaves absolutely no room for future growth, either of the proposed services or for new services. HS2 will be born wearing an 18 tpph straightjacket.

Operationally, 18 tpph means a train every three minutes twenty seconds. With all 18 paths in use then even a minor perturbation will have very significant knock-on effect on the service. Whilst technically 18 tpph can be provided on a single track, that is simply not enough paths to deliver all the expectations and promises. Building the line with four high-speed tracks rather than two for the Phase One London stem will be essential to meet all the demands which will be made on it.

Challenge five – lack of connectivity

The purpose of better Connectivity, in the author’s mind, is to make rail journeys as attractive as possible in order to get people out of their cars, to keep their cars off the road and to make a significant contribution towards CO2 reduction as mandated by the 2008 Climate Change Act. We can probably all agree with that general concept.

Expectantly, the author searched in vain for a definition of Connectivity but, finding none, was left wondering how the whole of the transport ‘chatterati’ can be forever talking up the Holy Grail of Connectivity without defining it in the first place! It seems that Connectivity is no better defined than the Holy Grail itself, ‘which expression is often used to denote an object or goal that is sought after for its great significance. Different traditions describe the Holy Grail as a cup, dish or stone with miraculous powers that provide happiness, eternal youth or sustenance in infinite abundance.’ (Wikipedia)

That definition seems to define perfectly the HS2 Connectivity of most people’s dreams and expectations! Despairing, the author felt he had no alternative but to write his own definition which is offered here for comment.

Connectivity is the ability to make a journey between any two stations on the rail network as quickly as practicably possible with the minimum number of changes of train; preferably none.

By adopting a formal definition, a scoring system for measuring Connectivity can then be created so that the value of competing designs can be compared. The author long ago concluded that ‘significantly reduced journey times’ will be essential in order to obtain major improvements in national Connectivity. In turn, ‘significantly reduced journey times’ can only be achieved by constructing some new high-speed line and upgrading some existing lines to 100 mph, and more where feasible. The whole of the new network will need to be designed as a supplement to the existing network allowing existing stations to be used for the most part along with existing local transport links.

The new high-speed rolling stock to operate on the new high-speed lines will need to be built to a loading gauge suitable for operating on the whole of today’s UK intercity passenger network.

An independent, in-depth, study of HS2’s ability to ‘deliver hugely enhanced capacity and connectivity’ has been undertaken which shows that HS2 will not even get close to achieving that aim. As noted above, the designers of the HS2 so called ‘network’ appear to have no idea of the kind of new high-speed railway which they need to design in order to deliver Andrew McNaughton’s vision for the project.

As a result, they have failed dismally. That is the conclusion of the independent study into HS2 Connectivity which considered a basket of all 496 possible journeys between 32 existing centres; home to over thirty million people or about sixty per cent of the English population. The simplest scoring system possible was used.

Three totals were compiled, i.e. the journeys improved, the journeys unchanged and the journeys made worse, by building HS2 when compared with journeys on today’s network. The study found that HS2 speeds up 88 (18 per cent) of the 496 journeys, makes no difference to 314 (63 per cent) journeys and actually makes 94 (19 per cent) journeys worse than today. HS2 Ltd asks us to take it seriously as the great rail network intervention for the 21st Century whilst making more journeys worse than it improves. Why should the Government spend even £1 to make journeys worse? As a project, HS2 is a ‘complete turkey’; a very controversial project indeed. The 16 page Executive Summary of the independent study describing the failure of HS2 to deliver its promises can be found at and the full 392 page report is also available on

In the concluding part of this article Quentin Macdonald explores Challenge 6, the totally unacceptable and unnecessary environmental vandalism of HS2 which can be largely avoided.

Quentin Macdonald is Systems Engineering Principal HSUK and a Chartered Electrical Engineer with 52 years’ continuous experience in the Railway Industry

Please contact him on 01904 339944 or 07771 995504 or

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2018-05-25T15:56:18+00:00May 25th, 2018|June 2018|