Living in Leeds but finding that my work is becoming more and more focused on London and the South East, the idea of HS2 narrowing the gap between the North and South is an appealing one. Leaving aside the fact that I’ll be looking towards retirement by the time it is currently scheduled to be built, in principle, cutting the journey time between Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, and London sounds good. A few years back I turned down a very good and highly paid job with a lovely public sector pension in Birmingham because the train commute from Leeds was unbearably long at roughly 2 1/2 hours each way (and there was no way I was going to relocate there). If HS2 had been around and the journey was down to less than an hour, it would have been a no-brainer.
However, the reality is that HS2 is too expensive at a time when most agree that there is no money, will take too long to build and will cause massive disruption to rather nice rural areas and large chunks of London. The drawbacks look to outweigh the advantages for a relatively small number of higher paid workers of being able to commute to London or for London businesses to establish offices away from the crowded South East.
Alternative projects might deliver more benefits. For example, a possibility might be to cut London out of the thinking for HS2 entirely and to look at how to speed up travel between the East and West Coast main lines through the Midlands and North. There may be real benefits in building just the part of HS2 running from Birmingham northwards to Leeds and Manchester, but also to take in Sheffield (woefully underconnected by rail with the rest of the country for such a significant city) and perhaps to link Hull and Liverpool via Leeds, Bradford and Manchester. The journey between Leeds and London could be cut down to less than 2 hours by reducing the number of trains that stop at Wakefield Westgate (surely the most over-served station on the network). Upgrading the links between Middlesbrough, Sunderland and the East Coast mainline would also have merit in reversing their long decline and isolation.
From a romantic and national pride perspective it is sad that we don’t have anything like the gleaming French TGV network. It is always depressing to see the exhibits in the National Railway Museum in York which show how little improvement there has been in long-distance journey times since the end of the age of steam locomotion, particularly as they are juxtaposed with an early Japanese bullet train that is nearly half a century old. However, that’s a legacy of half a century of underinvestment in rail even prior to privatisation and the romance of rail travel or competing with other countries for monuments are not good reasons for HS2. Sadly, and with regret, HS2, you’re the wrong answer to today’s questions and will be an anachronism by the time you ever get built, so, you’re fired.