There are many follies in England’s green and pleasant land. Most were built by individuals perhaps wanting to leave a permanent monument to their having existed and having enjoyed some measure of success in their lives.  Most have some artistic or architectural merit and so have survived. Generally they have no practical use, hence their naming as “Follies”.

Our government is hell bent on creating another folly which will span much of the length of England. Here I will explain why I take this view.

The Plan for HS2:

The timetable set out for the construction of HS2:


Section Start Construction Operation
Phase 1: London-West Midlands Depends on land acquisition 2026
Phase 2A/2B: West Midlands-North West/North East Up in the air 2027 (Crewe)2033 (Manchester and Leeds

The completion date for the two parts of Phase 2 is probably optimistic since the route is yet to be finalised and no start date seems to be available on the HS2 website. A considerable amount of our money has already been spent on consultants but I have not been able to find an exact cost to date. There are many detailed reports on various government websites; the cost of producing those alone must be staggeringly high!

It is perhaps telling that the first section in many of the reports deals with “Greenhouse Gases” …

Existing High Speed Rail

Probably the most well know system is France’s TGV. The TGV was developed in the 1970s and started service in 1981. There are significant differences between France and the UK in population density, and TGV lines are usually much longer than HS2 (e.g. Paris to Marseilles around 850 km.)

There is a lot more information here.

I have used the service on a few occasions between Paris and the south of France. It was a good service and not overly expensive at the time. My final destination was a town served by a TGV station. Much of the line was through flat open country where construction would not have been difficult. After many years of operation for most lines built at much lower cost per kilometre than HS2 those projects might now be financially viable.

A quick internet search suggests current ticket prices (Paris – Marseilles) much lower than the existing WCML route from London to Manchester.

Our Transport Options

We all rely on transport, often wholly or partly provide by others, to go about our daily business. Indeed proximity or convenience of travelling to our place of work is often a major factor in where we choose to live or presents an obstacle to our living elsewhere. Generally only walking, cycling or driving our own vehicle provides direct access between home and work. A small minority might live and work close to railway stations served by a single train, or they might be able to use a single bus, but others will have to use multiple modes of transport for their daily or weekly journey.

Thus the journey time experienced by train users is not directly proportional to the speed of that train and may be increased significantly by the journey to/from the railway station and home/work. Of course that is greatly exacerbated if the stations are few and far between as with HS2.

HS2 is also likely to be very costly to use even without the transfer costs at either end. I seriously doubt whether it would be an economic alternative for long distance commuting, of which I have some years experience. The train was sometimes a welcome alternative from the motorway traffic jams but invariably took significantly longer than driving, cost more and added the inconvenience of not having the car available at work.

The above issues mean that dreams of freeing up capacity on the existing rail network are just that, and savings in journey time will be minimal for most potential users, even if they were able to afford the likely (yet to be disclosed) ticket prices.

The Beneficiaries

As an engineer I understand the enthusiasm of many in that profession for a grand new project, as well as the (temporary for most) job opportunities it provides. It also provides a much needed boost to the construction industry and those companies who will supply materials and equipment. However, we should note that, whilst we are in the EU, that work is required to be open to competition from non-UK companies so we might not see much benefit at all.

The government also seems intent on destroying our steel industry so I fear that much of the steel may end up being imported from China. I have hands on experience of steel fabrication over the years and know that such steel is of inconsistent composition and rolled sections are often not dimensionally compliant with our standards. I cannot understand, save for the 3 big “C’s”*, why such imports are allowed.

The Alternative

HS2 is old technology, perhaps with some clever controls bolted on. We are now seeing the emergence of automated vehicles and it will soon be possible to own one; maybe with further developments even non-ownership of such cars might become economically viable. Development of HGVs is in progress. Of course mixing such vehicles with those driven by humans will create issues and they might well have to be segregated.

However, imagine a dedicated highway for such vehicles travelling in close-coupled (not hard-coupled) convoy! The driver could relinquish control to the automated system and regain it when leaving that highway to go to his destination. The separation between vehicles could be small, just sufficient to allow a vehicle to transfer to/from the running lane to/from the acceleration lane, all controlled automatically. The same concept could be applied to coach/bus travel, thereby avoiding those additional journey legs to and from the railway station.

Much development is still required including modelling to test all possible scenarios such as breakdowns and such vehicles would have to be of similar and consistent performance. A physical model too would be a good way to inform people and gain support. Maybe Hyde Park or a similar location for it would be good.

With commitment and determination this could well make HS2 redundant before it goes fully into service. How about starting the design of an automated highway along a similar route and connecting it to the existing motorway network?

Conclusion

Even 10 years to the projected Phase 1 opening is a long time given the rapid progress in alternative technologies – but surely they will have been developed to a practicable level by the completion target of Phase 2?

I am convinced that HS2 will become a white elephant before it goes fully into service, and a monument (with no artistic or architectural appeal) to government squandering which the taxpayers will have to fund for many years in the future. It might attract a few tourists in the early years. Even travel on the existing rail system is far too expensive; will potential passengers be willing to pay even more?

Of course they could make the track bed wide enough to convert to a road but that would require an admission of potential failure.

Perhaps the worst criticism may be gleaned from the fact that HS2 is an EU concept: has the EU ever got anything right?
*Cronyism, Corruption and Cost – probably in that order!

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