Confessions of a Political Animal

August 29, 2008

Is high-speed rail the wrong track for Britain?

Britains first and probably last high speed line (c)

High Speed 1 from St Pancras to the Channel: Britain's first and probably last high speed line (c)

It was reportedon Wednesday, that ministers are becoming decidedly luke-warm on the idea of a north-south high speed rail line for Britain. This flies in the face of the accepted wisdom that Britain needs 180mph domestic rail services in order to tempt passengers away from domestic flights and their cars. Even the traditionally rail-unfriendly Tories have been making warm noises about a high-speed line (they won’t have seen the potential bill yet), thankfully having weaned themselves off the pie-in-the-sky idea of a maglev network. As an advocate of greater use of Britain’s railways for both passengers and freight, I might be expected to share the enthusiasm for high-speed rail. Until recently, that would have been correct, but I have increasingly become a high-speed sceptic.

I worry increasingly that a lot of the support for a domestic high-speed line is based around an understandable, but flawed, desire to emulate the success of the French TGV network. Yes, the Train a Grand Vitesseis a pleasure to travel on, has slashed journey times and effectively put an end to air travel on some of the routes it serves (e.g. Paris-Marseille and Paris-Strasbourg). But the idea that this is automatically translatable into the British context fails to take into account firstly the vastly differing circumstances across the Channel and also the negative side to the TGV:

  • Cost: France has the same population as the UK, but in twice the area. Spain, which is also building up a huge high-speed network, is even less crowded. Higher population density means higher land values, more planning disputes and a prolonged pre-construction period of wrangling. All these add up to a bill for a Anglo-Scottish high-speed rail project of potentially £40bn. Given the way that HM Treasury works, this money would have to be found by abstracting money from other rail spending and inflated fares for travel on the high-speed route. It has to be a concern that a high-speed line would tie up all rail investment for a generation.
  • Population spread: The French high-speed network proved necessary in part because of the far-flung nature of its major cities. The second and third cities of Marseille and Lyon are 769 and 457km respectively from Paris. The equivalent figures for Birmingham and Manchester are 162 and 263km. Travel time by rail between London and Birmingham is little more than 90 minutes – there are no flights and most people travelling by car aren’t doing so for reasons of journey time. London to Manchester is faster by train on a city centre-to-city centre timing: people choose to use the plane because it can be cheaper. The same goes for Leeds, Liverpool and (just about) Newcastle. Obviously, the aim would be for a high-speed line to continue to Glasgow and/or Edinburgh where big time savings would start to emerge. The problem is the economics: there is a huge swathe of to all intents and purposes empty country (which will generate no revenue) to cross before you get to these cities.
  • The effect on other rail services: The TGV network is the public face of the French railways, and to an extent, the French state. The problem is, it is only half of the picture. Attempt to travel by train away from the high-speed axes or the Paris suburban network and you will be met by slow, infrequent services, life-expired infrastructure and rolling stock and lines where nearly every ‘train’ is in fact a bus. France is still closing railway lines– the UK hasn’t done so in over a decade. One of the key reasons for this has been the concentration of investment in the TGV network, which despite its success, does not return a profit to plough into the ‘social’ railway. I’m no apologist for the current state of the UK’s railways, but beyond the TGV they put the French network to shame – but if funding was diverted to high speed in the UK, the same fate would be likely to occur (France is not isolated in this – Spanish railways are remarkably minimalist beyond the high-speed network). To illustrate the point, below is a table comparing frequencies and journey times on similar UK and non-TGV French routes.


Type of route From (& population) To (& population) Distance (miles) Trains/day Journey time
Major city to secondary city Clermont Ferrand (139,600) Lyon (470,000) 128 7 2h31
Peterborough (163,300) Leeds (443,247) 119 25 1h12
Between secondary cities Rouen (106,592) Amiens (135,501) 75 4 1h17
Cheltenham Spa (112,300) Newport (140,200) 56 16 0h58
Major city to secondary city Toulouse (435,000) Limoges (133,968) 179 3 3h09
Edinburgh (448,624) Preston (132,000) 216 9 2h38
Major city to rural town Montpellier (244,300) Mende (11,804) 123 2 3h35
Wolverhampton (236,000) Aberystwyth (11,607) 108 8 2h33
Capital to tertiary town Paris (2,167,994) Auxerre (37,790) 105 4 1h41
London (7,355,400) Yeovil (41,871) 133 17 2h13
Rural branchline Tours (142,000) Loches (6,328) 25 3 1h02
Norwich (132,000) Sheringham (7,143) 27 17 0h55
Second city outer suburban Marseille (820,900) la Penne-sur-Huveaune (6,005) 10 10 0h17
Birmingham (1,010,200) Dorridge (c 7,000) 12 74 0h15

But rejecting high-speed rail as a panacea must not mean leaving Britain’s rail network as it stands. As it is, the network is unco-ordinated, short-termist and unjustifiably expensive for both passenger and taxpayer, leaving it unable to compete with other modes. Obviously the current operation structure has to change, preferably through full re-nationalisation of at least the infrastructure, but at the very least in a move towards operation of the infrastructure, passengers and freight by a very small number of not-for-profit companies on long franchises.

But the simple truth remains that what is preventing a large modal shift from air and car to rail in the UK is not speed, but capacity, price and flexibility. And it is through addressing these issues that new investment would be better spent, alongside a levelling of the playing-fields to remove the hidden subsidies (like exemption from fuel tax and VAT) that allow for unrealistically cheap air travel.

Rather than automatically thinking that we need to follow the French in building high-speed lines the length of the country, Britain would be better served adopting the highly successful piece-meal German approach of constructing short stretches of high-speed line where economically feasible (comparative maps of French and Germannetworks – scroll down in each case) and where time savings will be greatest through avoiding very slow or congested sections of exisiting lines.

The money ‘saved’ through not building huge high-speed networks can be used far more effectively on quick-win schemes on the rest of the network. These should include capacity increasing measures such as line speed improvements; modernised signalling to allow more trains to be operated, more reliably; doubling and quadrupling track; new loops for freight trains to be overtaken; platform extensions to allow longer trains; work to permit double-deck trains to operate on some of the busiest routes; the construction of flying junctions and the re-opening, where possible of alternative routes.

To improve speed, flexibility, energy-efficiency and fuel security, a programme of electrification needs to be kick-started, starting with short gap-filling (Leeds-York, Manchester-Preston, Hastings-Ashford, Edinburgh-Glasgow direct), before moving on to look at bigger schemes, prioritising the Great Western mainline from Paddington to Cardiff and Bristol.

All these schemes are urgently needed if Britain’s rail network is to stimulate and cope with increased demand. They are just as vital as the Crossrail and Thameslink 2000 schemes currently going ahead. But the simple truth is that if the Treasury has to cough up for a high speed line, they will not happen. The risk is that we end up with a French-style network of two-halves – glitzy high-speed trains not really connecting with a run-down, minimalist rump of a network. In political terms, do we serve the few who will truly benefit from high-speed, or the many whose travelling lives will be improved by a high-capacity, affordable railway that continues to fulfil its social role? Do we want to lose this in order to cut 20 minutes off the journey time to Birmingham? I think not.

Update 3/10: The Animal analyses the weaknesses of the Tory High-Speed proposal here.



  1. Now that Prescott is no longer in cherge of transport, the Government could really move ahead on this project. It is no good telling people they should use their cars less if they are not prepared to put the investment into a high-speed link. The truth is, it will be expensive because the lines have to be relatively straight, so what? The European’s are streets ahead of us on public transport and yet, pound for pound, they collect less from ‘transport taxes’. Come on Gordon, it least you could have one lasting legacy from your parties term in office.

    Comment by UK Voter — August 29, 2008 @ 9:31 pm | Reply

  2. Not entirely sure I understand the point made by UK Voter above- after all, if you look at the history of Britain’s one high speed line (the Channel Tunnel Rail link), it was largely due to Prescott championing and eventually bailing out the project that it was built (see, for example, here:
    It is a common conception that ‘the Europeans’ (like that doesn’t include us) are better than the UK at public transport. What this boils down to is that the Swiss, Germans, Dutch, Belgians and Letzischers have better public transport networks than we do. In terms of service density, quality, frequency and reliability the UK is probably next in the public transport league table (fighting it out with the Danes and Norwegians). Not that that doesn’t mean we need huge improvements, just that spending all our public transport expenditure on one high-speed line with limited benefits doesn’t seem the way to do it.

    Comment by Political Animal — August 29, 2008 @ 11:55 pm | Reply

  3. […] party’s opposition to the third runway and promotes high-speed rail as an alternative (see here for why I think, from a pro-rail point of view, that this is the wrong priority), is at odds with […]

    Pingback by Boris’ dog whistle? « Confessions of a Political Animal — September 29, 2008 @ 3:11 pm | Reply

  4. Very interest post, particularly given the Tories’ recent pronouncements on rail.

    One of the things that strikes me, looking at the maps you link to, is that countries either have a single high speed rail line which appears to be a prestige project or a network radiating out from their capital. I’m not sure either would make sense for the UK. Our island is basically long and thin; I’d hazard a guess that moving people more effectively from (say) Manchester to Liverpool is more important than from London to Liverpool in terms of improving quality of life through reducing crappy commutes and improving air quality in city centres. Improving the public transport systems (not just rail) around Birmingham, Manchester & Liverpool, South Wales and so on would, as you suggest, be more beneficial.

    One last thing – would you turn the Snap previews off? They’re bloody annoying.


    Comment by Dave Cole — September 29, 2008 @ 3:41 pm | Reply

  5. I think you are broadly right, Dave. Hopefully I will get round to updating this post/writing a new one at some point now that the Tories have put their thoughts to paper.

    The key problem with the Tory’s proposals is that it doesn’t address the key market where high-speed rail would make a difference vis-a-vis air – i.e. London-Scotland. As I said in the post, rail to Manchester and Leeds is already competitive in terms of city-centre to city-centre journey time, but lose out (sometimes) on price. And high-speed rail certainly won’t do anything to compete on price, as ticket prices would have to rise.

    What worries me most about the Tories proposals, however, is what their effect is going to be on the railways in the short term. As the Conservative plan isn’t to start building the high-speed line before 2015, with completion in the mid 2020s, that’s a long time before anyone benefits. But for those next twenty years, what incentive is there for anyone, in the public or private sector to invest anything in the conventional routes that might just be made effectively obsolete by the new line – and then when that doesn’t actually get built we are left with a semi-defunct rail network and nothing to show for it. I hope I’ll be proved wrong, but I’m not so sure.

    Comment by Political Animal — September 29, 2008 @ 4:05 pm | Reply

  6. […] Railways, Ruth Kelly, Scotland, Theresa Villiers, Transport View Larger Map As I’ve written here before about the doubts that I have about high-speed rail being a panacea for the UK’s transport […]

    Pingback by High Speed 2: Taking apart the Tory train set « Confessions of a Political Animal — October 3, 2008 @ 12:13 am | Reply

  7. HS2 is a waste of time. It will only shave about twenty or thirty minutes off current journey times, cost a disproportionate amount of money to build, and just add yet another line into London!

    We don’t want another line to London there are enough already. North-south rail travel is brilliant compared to east-west. Time and money should be spent opening more stations, improving the West Coast Main Line, improving cross country services and investing in trains that run earlier and later in the day. East Midlands trains are hell-bent on getting people to London quickly so much so that they now run far less trains that stop at stations south of Leicester than Midland Mainline and BR did. The through train from north England, via midlands to Swansea is no more. The 0540 Derby to Crewe no longer runs (good for early connections at Crewe). Through trains from the east midlands to places such as Holyhead, Chester, Hereford, Shrewsbury, Bournemouth, Swansea, Bedford and Dundee no longer run or are less frequent than they were.

    The problem is the south-east of England has a very good rail network and the decision makers live and work there. Elsewhere in the country things aren’t so good.

    In short: We don’t all live in London, we don’t all work in London and we don’t all want to go to London!

    Comment by Joe — June 26, 2011 @ 2:07 pm | Reply

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