HS2: Why was Phase 2 cancelled, and are there any benefits as it is?
By Millie Botting, Consultant Commutologist
High Speed Two (HS2) is the proposed new high-speed railway that will form ‘the backbone of Britain’s transport network’. Controversial from the off, the project has been plagued with delays, spiralling costs and serious environmental concerns. The nuanced sustainability and mobility arguments also split opinions among sustainable travel experts.
A need for ‘greater connectivity’
Rail travel has doubled in the UK over the past 20 years, and regular commuters will know the discomfort of peak capacity. Travellers who often find themselves relegated to the floor or wedged in the baggage racks would likely welcome a new, improved, and more efficient service.
Phase 1 of HS2 will cut Birmingham to London train journey times from 1 hour 21 minutes to 52 minutes. Phase 2 promised a one-hour reduction on the Manchester to London service, but this
has since been cancelled, undermining HS2’s promise of greater connectivity for northern cities. It’s since emerged this leg of the network is to be replaced by the “Network North” plan, with the government announcing it was “reinvesting every penny of the £36bn saved from HS2 which . . . will deliver hundreds of projects in the midlands, north and across the country”.
Despite unveiling HS2’s replacement plan at the Conservative Party Conference in October 2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was quickly undermined when it emerged a number of the schemes had ‘been published in error, some already existed, and others had been promised previously but had never materialised’; scenes not all too dissimilar from the ‘scrapping’ of his mandated car-sharing policy.
Northern politicians from both sides of the aisle have repeatedly expressed that scrapping the Northern leg of HS2 risks exacerbating spatial inequalities and damaging the region’s growth prospects. Mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham, shared their frustration, saying, “What has been announced today is not a solution to the east-west bottleneck that we face on the railways in the north. It involves patching up existing lines and leaving us with a problem that still has not been fixed.”
Opposition to HS2 has also united some unlikely coalitions, including the Federation of Small Businesses, Conservative Party members, the Taxpayers Alliance, and Extinction Rebellion. Described as a ‘shocking waste of taxpayers’ money’, the public perception of HS2 isn’t likely to improve following allegations of fraud by The Sunday Times.
Public transport is often the better choice for environmentally conscious commuters, and HS2 pertains to be no different. Powered by zero-carbon energy, services will offer a cleaner alternative to car journeys and domestic flights. It’s estimated that a journey will produce 8g of carbon emissions per person per km, whilst a car would produce 67g and a plane 170g per person per km. However, the Department for Transport has confirmed that only 1% and 4% of HS2 passengers would have flown and driven respectively.
Of course, it’s not only passenger journeys that contribute to the climate crisis, but the “overall construction and operation” will still create significant carbon emissions. The impact on the countryside and wildlife is also a grave concern for activists campaigning against the project.
There is also concern that potential HS2 passengers would shift from using local rail stations to travelling by car to HS2 stations further afield to benefit from the journey time savings. If that did prove the case, it would ultimately lead to more cars on the roads. Airports, such as Birmingham Airport, would become increasingly accessible, potentially encouraging air travel.
There is also concern that potential HS2 passengers would shift from using local rail stations to travelling by car to HS2 stations further afield to benefit from the journey time savings. If that did prove the case, it would ultimately lead to more cars on the roads.
Conversely, however, by releasing rail capacity on existing lines, freight services and local services could increase in frequency. Rail freight produces 76% less carbon dioxide than the equivalent road freight, so this could offer huge environmental cost savings. One freight train is equivalent to up to 76 heavy goods road vehicles. By releasing rail capacity for freight, air quality can be improved, as can road safety and congestion.
While the scrapping of the Northern leg frustrated many Northern politicians, industry group Rail Partners said the decision was a blow to Britain’s net zero plans. Rail Partners CEO Andy Bagnall said, “While reinvestment in other regional rail schemes is a significant consolation, the decision to reduce investment in rail and divert funds to road schemes feels counterintuitive as we look to attract people to move away from carbon-intensive modes of transport.”
What’s next for HS2?
Sustainable mobility is a critical issue that affects the environment, economy, and society. While HS2 has been criticised for its environmental impact, cost, and limited benefits to the wider population, it has the potential to be a sustainable infrastructure project that provides zero-carbon travel as a clean alternative to cars and planes.
HS2 will likely remain at the centre of a vigorous and multifaceted debate. While it may promise shorter, cleaner journeys, create jobs and drive economic growth, the spiralling financial and environmental costs form a formidable opposition.
While HS2 has been criticised for its environmental impact, cost, and limited benefits to the wider population, it has the potential to be a sustainable infrastructure project that provides zero-carbon travel as a clean alternative to cars and planes.
As the project unfolds, its long-term impact on the UK’s transportation infrastructure, economy, and environment will continue to be a subject of intense scrutiny and discussion. Achieving a balance between these contrasting interests will be instrumental in shaping the future of the UK’s mobility landscape.
What are your thoughts about HS2? Did the Prime Minister make the right decision to scrap HS2? Are you one of the people impacted by the infrastructure, or would it have changed your travel habits? Let us know below.
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