» Country’s second high-speed rail line would speed commuters from London to Birmingham in 49 minutes; extensions to Manchester and Leeds are planned.
After seven months in power, the United Kingdom’s Conservative-led government has endorsed the previous Labour Government’s plans for a high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham, a connection that will reduce running times between the country’s two largest metropolitan areas from 1h20 to less than fifty minutes. In addition, the Department for Transport, led by Phillip Hammond, has recommended the eventual extension of the route northeast towards Leeds and northwest towards Manchester in a 335-mile Y-shaped corridor to cost upwards of £30 billion ($46 billion) to construct.
The Conservative Government’s endorsement of this HS2 route confirms practically universal political support for the high-speed project in Britain and indicates that construction will get underway in 2016. Upon entering power, the Conservatives sent mixed messages about their interest in devoting a huge percentage of the country’s budget to this project; this week’s news demonstrates significant political support from the right-wing for the program.
The route is to be designed to allow trains to travel at speeds up to 250 mph and significantly relieve the West Coast Main Line, which carries 75 million passengers a year and which is expected to reach capacity by 2024, despite having been recently reconstructed at a cost of £13 billion. The new line will include a link to the existing HS1, which connects London to the Channel Tunnel. At completion, HS2 will allow 3h30 travel times between London and Glasgow or Edinburgh in Scotland and 3h00 trips between Paris and Birmingham.
Up to 15 trains per hour will terminate at a 10-track station added to the existing London Euston, carrying up to 16,500 passengers per direction per rush hour. A spur to Heathrow Airport is planned.
Though the primary purpose of the new rail link will be to reduce travel times throughout Great Britain, the Department for Transport has argued that it would also allow commuters to live in places like Coventry and Milton Keynes and work in London. Those cities are respectively 100 and 50 miles from the capital. It is worth questioning whether it makes sense to encourage such long-distance commuting, no matter how quickly it can be done. Indeed, though one of the stated goals of the high-speed train project is to reduce carbon emissions by reducing the number of automobile and airplane trips, long-distance work commutes are energy intensive no matter the mode used.
HS2 is also likely to see mounting criticism from communities along the line that will be affected by the construction of the project and the operation of the trains. The expansion of Euston Station will force several hundred families to move away from their homes in London; meanwhile, as the trains travel across the Chilterns and Warwickshire, they are likely to produce an uncomfortable increase in noise for up to 50,000 people. Though Mr. Hammond has reworked half of the route in response to citizen concerns and argued that the project will be attractively designed when built, he may face mounting criticism from within his own party if the project moves ahead as planned.
Nonetheless, the British high-speed rail project is likely to be a successful enterprise. HS1, which was completed in late 2007, has far fewer riders than HS2 is expected to carry but the services that use it (Eurostar and Southeastern High-Speed) are operationally profitable. Its huge £5 billion construction cost (including the £800 million renovation of London St. Pancras Station) has been partially paid off through the £2.1 billion 30-year concession announced last month — and new development expected around the London terminus, Stratford International, and other stations will add to the benefits. Similar or better results can be expected for the new line.
The government’s assertion of the importance of a link between HS1 and HS2 will add to value of both lines. By allowing direct service between central England and Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, or other continental cities, this connection — to be tunneled under north London — will encourage more air travelers from outside of London to switch to the train.
Moving tens of thousands of daily travelers to the new line will allow the West Coast Main Line to be freed for local, regional, and freight services. The creation of new terminals in London, Birmingham, and the other cities served will encourage more downtown development. The government recognizes the economic benefits of increased spending on mobility infrastructure.
To put the United Kingdom’s project in perspective, the government is planning to spend more than $40 billion on a rail line that will connect four metropolitan areas — London, Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds — whose collective population amounts to about 22 million. California’s similarly priced fast train will in its first phase link five metropolitan areas — Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, Bakersfield, and Fresno — whose inhabitants number about 21 million. Future phases to Stockton, Sacramento, Riverside, and San Diego will add another 10 million to the service area.
If a Conservative government in the United Kingdom is willing to fund its project, in spite of massive cuts to the rest of the public budget, it’s hard to understand why bipartisan agreement in favor of investment in U.S. infrastructure in the form of high-speed rail cannot be assembled.
Image above: Trains at London’s Euston Station, from Flickr user Matt Buck (cc)