11 01 2012

As predicted in my last blog, the government has come out in favour of the proposals for the new high-speed rail line from London to Birmingham commonly referred to as HS2. The decision has given rise to strong feelings among those both for and against however, from a sound strategy point of view, we simply do not know which view is right, there are still too many ‘unknown unknowns.’

Earlier this week I lambasted the current vogue for Initiativeitis over the use of sound strategy and HS2, the proposed high-speed rail line between Birmingham and London, shows all the hallmarks of the kind of expensive initiative to which I referred.

That is not to say that there are not reasons for supporting HS2. Primary among these reasons is one that applies to nearly all (if not all) of Britain’s rail system – it has been allowed to become old and outdated and desperately needs updating. Train journeys, particularly during rush hour have more in kind with sardine cans than (expensive) travel system and, much though the increased speed of HS2 would be welcomed it is capacity which poses the bigger problem. New is required, a patched up railway won’t do.

According to government and Network Rail figures there is economic benefit too. Although the project will cost c. £33 billion to build, the estimates put forward suggest economic benefit of c. £44 billion.

A much-needed update of a decrepit railway which brings with it economic benefit; what’s not to support about HS2?

There are those who object because the building and subsequent running of HS2 will negatively impact on areas of countryside but, short of the patched up old system option referred to above, it is difficult to see how any upgrade of our railways will be achieved without some disruption to the countryside somewhere. While I have sympathy, as part of a cold and clinical assessment of need the pros outweigh the cons.

There are however imponderables which might raise questions, not least if it fails to come in on budget, as to how much of the predicted economic benefit will be realised against inflated costs – it is, after all still in recent memory that when budgeting the building of the Olympic Park the government forgot to cost in VAT before also having to increase the original budget (£2.4bn) by 400%.

And there is also the information that either has not been gathered or which does not yet exist; knowledge gaps which suggest HS2 is yet more Initiativeitis without thorough strategic rationale.

Looked at in isolation the benefits above sound strong but, as ever, our politicians are failing to think ‘big picture.’ While focusing on train travel between the UK’s two biggest cities it would appear no one has asked, “what will travel look like in 20 or 30 years?” Or even, “where and how will people be travelling in 40 years’ time?” The need defined above is need in terms of today’s traveller when the project will not be completed until this writer is well past the age of retirement and possibly long gone!

Put another way; where is the government’s integrated national travel strategy? Forty years ago Heathrow Airport had scope for expansion, scope it needed. Forty years before that London’s main airport was not in west London it was south of London. No, not Gatwick but at Croydon. Forty years from now where will London’s (and the UK’s) main airport be? Heathrow is likely limited to its three runways and is therefore close to its capacity. Could it be that Boris Johnson’s proposed new airport in the Thames estuary will be the ‘new Heathrow’ of 2042? If London and/or Britain is to remain a vital hub of world travel, decisions must be made. I’m sure Amsterdam is looking on in interest.

Will Birmingham still be the UK’s second city? Will Leeds with its growing importance to both financial and legal sectors have overtaken Birmingham in importance in economic and in travel infrastructure requirements? Will any other city have reinvented itself in the way Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle or Glasgow have in the last 30 years? Will the East Midlands be the central hub of UK travel with its three main cities, improving airport and central location?

What will our motorway network need to look like? Will our waterways be renewed as ‘greener’ arteries for moving freight around the country?

We simply don’t know. There is no integrated national travel strategy and no research which has considered need based on a likely future rather than the current, already dated, position. Developments will continue to happen piecemeal and in the random way that is Initiativeitis. It looks like action with purpose where, without having clearly defined what the purpose needs to be it is in fact just action for the sake of action.

Taken on its own as a small part of ‘future UK’ HS2 looks to have validity but when considered as part of a bigger picture, when considered as part of what traveling around Britain 50 years from now will look like we have no way of knowing whether the decision to proceed is a good one or not.

HS2 is based on guesswork and assumption. Good strategy must be informed by sound research, by informed predictions of future demand and by considering the big picture. Otherwise Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz might have built horse-drawn carriages and we would be flying off on our holidays from Croydon!

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, January 2012

Read more blogs by Jim Cowan


Twitter @cowanglobal




One response

28 08 2012

[…] is a topic I have covered on this blog before; that of the absence of an integrated strategy for transport. In January, news of the new HS2 […]

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