High Speed Rail 2 – running into the buffers at 150 miles per hour?

More voices have been raised against the UK HS2 – the high speed rail project to link the Midlands and North of England with London, saving as much as 20 minutes on journeys between London and Birmingham. (20 minutes! Wow!)  Now the Institute of Directors (IoD) has given it the thumbs down,  raising the question as to whether it really has any supporters left?

We featured an excellent article here from Stephen Ashcroft of Brain Farrington Ltd., and recently we have also heard more political voices raised against it, notably Alistair Darling, Finance Minister (Chancellor) and at one stage Transport Minister under the last Labour government, who was for the scheme but has now turned against it.

I’m personally sceptical about the business case, from what I’ve read, and it just seems to me that there would be better ways of spending £40 Billion on infrastructure projects. But I was amused by the comments the other day from Maria Eagle, the current Labour opposition’s transport  spokesperson.

 “We’re still in favour of the scheme but won’t support it if the cost goes over £50 Billion” she said.

 So let’s assume Labour win the next election, and the projection is that it will cost (let‘s say) £45 billion by then. Fine, we’ll go ahead, says Eagle. Two or three years later after perhaps £10 or £20 billion has already been spent, acquiring land, committing to contracts, and so on, there’s bad news. The costs have risen. They are now projected to be £50,001,000,000. (That’s £50 billion and a million, by the way).

What is Ms Eagle going to do then, given the sunk cost? Abandon the work? And what about if £40 million has been spent and the project estimate is £50 billion and a penny? Just write it off? You can see how that reductio ad absurdum demonstrates that this stance just isn’t feasible once the project starts.

We also know that governments of any flavour hate pulling the plug on anything once money has been invested, even if the prognosis is not good, because it makes them look stupid. See the ID Card scheme, the national NHS IT programme, Fire Control... (It’s a human trait actually, we hate giving things up generally, as Daniel Kahneman explains along with many other aspects of human thinking in his brilliant book, Thinking Fast and Slow).

So Eagle’s stance is fine in terms of not starting the project if the estimates have gone above a certain point, but doesn’t address the more likely issue, that is cost overruns or inflation during the project.

Will it happen? The betting now must be swinging towards a no, I suspect. but then, most people thought the Channel Tunnel was just a dream...

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Voices (15)

  1. John Diffenthal:

    @Sam Unkim – save some of your money – it already exists … the Joint European Torus was specifically set up to investigate fusion power as a safe, clean energy source. JET has the largest tokamak in the world which claims to be the only fusion experiment capable of producing fusion energy.

    The successor project ITER, based on an even larger tokamak, is designed to produce 500MW for 400 seconds. It will be the first fusion unit in the world to produce more power than it consumes and hot runs should commence in 2019.

    1. Sam Unkim:

      @ John

      2019 !! (and another 10-15 years after that to see any benefit) whilst the Manhattan Project delivered in 4 years. Let’s get some urgency here.

      They need to be bringing a different design online, every 12 months or so, to evolve a commercial solution.

      Windmills really aren’t cutting it are they ?

      1. John Diffenthal:

        I think you are being a bit optimistic at 10-15 years from hot running on a reasonably stable experimental level to civilian benefit. The engineering problems of fusion are enormous.

        The Manhattan project started with a pile that became critical in the early 40s but the first commercial power generation didn’t take place until almost the mid 50s … an example of where it’s easier to blow things up than creating an environment where things don’t blow up I suppose. Fusion is proving to be several orders of magnitude more difficult.

  2. John:

    In June 2013 a series-hybrid plane flew for the first time, using a light Wankel engine generator and a small electric motor turning the propeller. The plane is very quiet using electric batteries to take-off and land, so no noise problems from engines in built up areas. They are suitable for inner-city airports. The new Wave Disk engine under development at Michigan’s State University promises to vastly improve efficiency in this series-hybrid setup. It is scalable to 200 seater airliners.

    This will eliminate the need for super expensive to build and maintain high speed rail lines. The planes could be in shuttles taking off by the minutes, not leave every hour. The local shuttle airports will replace the HS2 stations. These cheap short take off planes could take off from small inner city airports with ski-jump runways served by metro rail stations at the airports for direct ease of access. The shuttles could link with major airports for long haul flights. Ticketing with the supporting local rail lines can be integrated. Off the metro and across to the plane.

    The likes of Liverpool could build an artificial island in the River Mersey off the city centre to accommodate a small shuttle airport, with an underground station cut into the metro tunnel under the river. It could also double as cruise liner terminal. Cities near water can easily accommodate small city shuttle airports near the centres with metro access to the surrounds. London already has one with the City airport. Others could be built. Rundown Inner-city sites can be cleared to accommodate the small shuttle airports in other inland cities.

    There are then no rail lines to build, just the cost of very small airports with local metro links and buy the cheap shuttle planes. The private sector can purchase the planes and run them and the public sector build and run the small airports and rail links t the them, reducing taxpayers costs. The cost will be a fraction of the cost of HS2 running into every city centre in every major city. Even far cheaper than the existing ill-conceived super-expensive plan of having just FOUR cities directly served by HS2.

    Technology has overtaken HS2, which will be 80 year old French technology when it comes on-line. All it needs is some sensible thought viewing technology advances. HS2 is planned for 20 years time. In that time small shuttle airports can be built and the small planes developed and built.

  3. Dan:

    Could we use it to bribe America to keep Piers Morgan? Money well spent in my opinion.

  4. David Atkinson:

    Let’s hope it’s cancelled. A vanity project. Far better to make incremental improvements across a range of transport projects than to waste another penny on something designed to get provincial MPs to London a bit quicker. …on expenses.

    1. Bill Atthetill:

      Good point David. But here’s a challenge for you (and perhaps Peter would want to ask this of all of his readers) but if you had £50 billion in your back pocket (in Treasury) what would you do with it, to make a difference? (Like you, I wouldn’t piss it all up the wall on a new train set to benefit a relatively insignificant handful of citizens, or create 100,000 jobs, the vast majority of which would be met by skilled workers from other countries – like they were on the construction of the Olympic Park).

      So, really, what would you do with it?

      – upgrade the NHS – say, all diagnostics kit, or more diagnostics kit? Or more cancer centres? Or R&D?

      – run massive ‘game-changing’ health campaigns (healthy eating, salt sugar, smoking and drinking….ok, not on drinking) for, say, 10 years and not only create a “Fitter Britain” but reduce the long term impact (by £billions) on the NHS?

      – eradicate child poverty or fuel poverty?

      – invest in another Oxford Street (which rakes in £5billion per annum now, apparently)?

      – invest in R&D across a range of high tech industries to accelerate growth in UK-based manufacturing?

      – pay for new academies to train thousands of UK ‘youths’ in high tech industries, creative industries etc?

      – incentivise global firms (over, say, 10 years) to base their plants in this country?

      – inventive schemes to create more SMEs (recognising that 90%+ of our GDP is generated by SMEs)

      – massive investment in the creative industries (currently, a whopping 6%+ of GDP, and primed for massive growth…)?

      – Invest in London which has the largest GDP of any capital city in Europe?

      – pay for the education (to degree level) of at least 2 generations to ensure that future generations are primed to understand the benefits and outcome of a better education – and to finally eradicate on all UK job applications the boxes which ask candidates “can you read and write” in the basic skills section – whereas 10 years ago, in Germany, the same basic skills boxes were “do you posses computer skills?”

      A new train set? No, absolutely not.

      1. Sam Unkim:

        Certainly like many of these, but for me it would have to be seed-funding a PanEuropean Manhattan Project to get Fusion energy working.

        Anyone who thinks, it is not a national priority, needs to see what the chernobyl fallout footprint would have looked like centered on Sizewell or Dungeness

      2. John:

        If I had £50bn to spend it would be on building “eco” zero heat homes of which the UK is desperately short of – and change the Stalinist planning system of course. Construction is manpower intensive and do not forget the countless manufacturing industries that supply the materials. The ripple effect is phenomenal.

      3. John:

        @Bil atthetill

        ” Invest in London which has the largest GDP of any capital city in Europe?”

        The reason why London is so successful is because of masses of public poured into the city over the past 30 years – especially the transport infrastructure. Read economist Fred Harrison on this. It created the ideal environment for the private sector to operate in. It is all based of initially public money, even Docklands was one third paid for by public money in the infrastructure. They even built a metro there with over 30 stations, while the likes of Liverpool is screaming for a pittance to get its 5 miles of disused tunnels under the city up and running.

        Public money needs to be spent in the neglected cities, not London.

  5. Trevor Black:

    When the dosh runs out why not do what the Italians did when constructing motorways to nowhere. Just stop! That is why in southern Italy it is not unusual for dual carriageways to end abruptly at at huge pile of earth. Before we start laughing we should also remember that in Italy you can park your car for free at your local railway station and catch the train with seating available (c/w good legroom) and it even arrives in time and all at an affordable price. Despite this – it didn’t save Mussolini!!

  6. Dan:

    Who on earth would be in that much of a hurry to get to Birmingham?

    1. Sam Unkim:

      Can see your point

      A business case “from” Birmingham, as quickly as possible, would be more far likely to attract funding.

      1. Final Furlong:


  7. Sam Unkim:

    Theres always going to be a need to travel faster

    Would it be to much to ask that we go ahead with the legal battles and the eventual route clearence, bridges and embankments then lease the route to an operator.

    Its going to take 10-15 years and by then who knows what will be on offer …


    You always have to bite the bullet in the end and I would rather this wasting multi million £ missles on Syrians

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