Andrew Adonis: Why it must be full speed ahead for HS2

An example of the high speed 'HS2' train.
An example of the high speed 'HS2' train.
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HS2 is the biggest infrastructure project in Europe; it is remarkable how rapid the progress has been from conception to the verge of construction, thanks to effective policy and project planning and strong cross-party support.

At 25,000 pages, the High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Bill is the biggest Bill ever presented to Parliament.

HS2 is on course for enactment at the end of this year and the start of construction next year, with the first phase from London to Birmingham to open in 2026, just 16 years from conception. For a scheme of its size and complexity, this is a phenomenal achievement.

It is not just the rate of progress that stands out from the past six years but the integrity of the case for HS2, which has withstood fierce debate and cross-examination.

From the outset, the central argument for HS2 has been about capacity, with speed and connectivity as significant additional benefits.

Since 2010 the imperative for more capacity has become greater still, which is essentially why HS2 has withstood scrutiny and controversy. HS2 links the four largest cities and city regions of the UK, centred on London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, while also providing direct services to Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Newcastle and key destinations in South Yorkshire and the East Midlands.

It could not be more vital to our economic future. Rail demand has doubled in the past 15 years alone. HS2 does not just meet this demand for intercity travel; by freeing up substantial capacity on the existing lines, it provides a major capacity boost for freight trains and commuter and regional passenger services.

From the outset, the big question underpinning HS2 has been: if not HS2, what? The only alternative to HS2 for dealing with the capacity crunch is massive further upgrades of the existing Victorian main lines – or in the case of the West Coast Main Line – pre-Victorian.

The last upgrade of the West Coast Main Line cost £9bn, £1bn of which was simply to pay train operators for not running trains due to the disruption in a decade of constant upheaval – quite apart from the huge cost borne by passengers and businesses.

Upgrading a busy main-line railway is like conducting open-heart surgery on a moving patient. To put this in perspective, the present government identified an upgrade alternative to HS2 from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds in their 2013 strategic case. This upgrade cost nearly half as much as HS2 but provided only a quarter of the extra capacity.

The argument on faster journey times has also become clearer over time. As HS2 proceeds further north, the time savings become steadily greater: an hour off every journey between London and Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds Critically, however, HS2 also not only dramatically improves connections between London and cities in the Midlands and the North but between the cities of the Midlands and the North, and between cities within the North itself.

The Victorian railway companies built mostly separate main lines from provincial cities to London, which is why rail links between most of our provincial cities remain very poor. Birmingham and Manchester are only 67 miles apart, yet the rail journey time between them takes one and a half hours. It will be 40 minutes by HS2. Sheffield to Manchester could be reduced to 30 minutes by HS2, if it is incorporated as part of the second phase, making this a key part of what is now being called HS3 – the proposed upgrading of rail links between the Northern cities.

Finally, there is the international context. High-speed rail between major cities is well established internationally. It is a key part of the transport systems in Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and many other countries. The first major project has now started in the United States between LA and San Francisco, which is roughly the distance between London and Glasgow.

I am not aware of a single country that has introduced high-speed rail between its major cities and now thinks that this was a mistake. Of course there are major challenges ahead, not least in keeping HS2 to time and to budget, but we are right to be taking HS2 forward. It will change the country for the better and it cannot come soon enough.

Andrew Adonis is a peer and head of the National Infrastructure Commission. He spoke in a Lords debate on high-speed rail. This is an edited version.