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End of the Line

As HS2 Derails, the UK Must Rethink Its Priorities on Transport

By Miles Rothoerl

A Japanese Shinkansen (Bullet Train)
Image courtesy of ArminEP on Pixabay

It’s been quite the ride; that is perhaps the one thing that everyone who has been attempting to follow the government’s policy on HS2. the high-speed rail link designed to connect London to the north of England, will be willing to agree on. A ride as it now turns out, that passengers anywhere north of Birmingham will not be going on. That’s right: less than two years after scrapping the eastern leg of the Cameron government’s scheme - which would have connected the West Midlands, Leeds and York to the UK’s dedicated high-speed network. Rishi Sunak has now confirmed that the Manchester leg of the route has also been abandoned. An announcement the PM made at the Tory conference in, of all places - Manchester.

The project is due to be replaced by investments in an array of improvements to regional transport around the north of England. Aiming among other things, to extend Manchester’s Metrolink to the Airport; a commitment only slightly undermined by the fact that the service has already been going there for almost nine years. Setting optics to one side, though, the U-turn described by an industry group as “the biggest and most damaging […] in the history of UK infrastructure” makes clear once again, that our aim is fundamentally off when it comes to transport policy.

The observation that every flight we take means bad news for the environment is hardly novel. And out with the most hardened communities of climate deniers; the assertion that we should be doing all we can to move as many people as possible off the tarmac and onto trains will be equally uncontroversial.

Unfortunately, as regular users of our rail network will be quick to interject, persuading travellers to make the switch is a task our current system is woefully ill-equipped to accomplish. If we want to have any chance of fixing that fact, our rail network needs to be more reliable, faster, and affordable.

When it comes to reliability, the message we’re currently sending to passengers is clear: if you need to arrive on time, don’t take the train. An analysis showing that more than half of train services departing from the UK’s 15 busiest stations were delayed or disrupted saw the network labelled “broken” by experts last year. And as 2022 saw rail cancellations soar to an all-time high; many had their business meetings, holiday plans, and family trips thrown into disarray.

Things don’t look much brighter when we turn to speed. The UK is lagging in comparison to most of its European neighbours when it comes to rail lines, with top speeds falling short of those in countries like France, Spain, Germany, and Austria - to name just a few. The consequence is predictable: journey times are long. While a trip from Edinburgh to Birmingham takes more than four hours by train; the roughly equidistant trip between Paris and Strasbourg, along France’s 2007 LGV-Est route, takes less than two. And even a journey from Madrid to Barcelona, which is about 65 miles longer, takes only two and a half hours. All things considered, rail travel between the two cities, served by one of Europe’s busiest domestic flight routes, is now the faster option.

Circumstances aren’t identical, of course, but the difference is stark. And – at least while we wait for elusive tech billionaires to subvert the laws of physics – making rail travel competitive will be key, meaning the UK’s longstanding underinvestment is even more damaging.

Not to worry, though: in exchange for their patience, rail passengers have the privilege of paying – checks notes – extra for their tickets. At the time of writing, a train journey from Aberdeen to London booked one month in advance will run you £75 and take around seven hours. A flight booked for the same day, taking about an hour and a half, costs only £23. And while flights between the even closer Edinburgh and Birmingham go for £25 - the cheapest train ticket comes in at almost twice that price.

The equation really is quite simple: for many with even the best of environmental intentions, travelling by train simply isn’t financially viable. And even for those who can afford it, the incentives aren’t there.

None of this is news, of course. But how do we fix it?

Short-term, current ticket pricing is neither sustainable nor reflective of the environmental costs of a given journey. It seems absurd that a plane ticket to London is a third of the price while emitting six times the carbon. This could be addressed by an emissions tax, the revenues from which could be used to subsidise rail fares. But ultimately, such measures will only go so far when the core of the problem is our network.

For trains to become a real alternative to many of the most popular domestic flights, we will have to increase the number of high-speed rail routes, and their capacity.

The reality is, of course, that rail infrastructure is expensive, and the returns on the substantial investment required will be gradual. But if we want to come anywhere close to reaching our emissions targets, then the status quo is untenable. Other countries, from Japan to France, which went as far as banning some short-haul flights last year; have shown that trains are more than capable of replacing planes on domestic, and even some international routes. Now the ball is in our court.

Ultimately, the bullet-train-shaped hole the HS2 scrapping leaves in our network is emblematic of a wider issue: when it comes to transport, we’re misplacing our priorities. And if we don’t correct our course, the long-term consequences, environmental and economic, will be borne not just by us, but by generations to come.


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