Posted by: aboutalbion | August 27, 2019

HS2 is running into a Concorde-like speed trap

My working life coincided with the working life of the supersonic passenger jet aircraft, Concorde.

Concorde was a successful engineering achievement which probably led (by the principle of trickle down) to better mouse traps for everyone. But Concorde was also an expensive commercial failure. Tickets were sold at a premium price, and the passengers were largely people who had acquired an expense account. The market for double supersonic speed (halving the journey time across the Atlantic) was a niche one – for the few and not the many. And after one catastrophic fatal flying accident, even fewer chose to fly in Concorde. Not too long afterwards, its commercial life came to an abrupt end.

I welcome the recent decision by the Transport Secretary to appoint an independent review of HS2 on many grounds. A couple spring to mind.

First, it will enable the review to establish evidence as to whether or not there is a substantial demand to travel on 250mph trains among the many (and not just the few). My sense is that HS2 tickets will be sold at a premium price and will be principally bought by regular first-class rail travellers. As I see it, the forthcoming introduction of 5G digital technology will enable even more business conference meetings to take place online.

Second, it will enable the review to collect evidence to test the validity of the argument that HS2 will help to gentrify the north by sharing prosperity from London with the north. I would turn the attention of the review to the East Coast Main Line which was upgraded in the 1980s with electrification. Did that rail upgrade transport prosperity from London to all the urban areas around the stations on the route? Did Peterborough, Doncaster, York, Darlington, Durham, Newcastle, and Edinburgh all experience an economic uplift from faster rail connectivity to London?

Third, I commented over five years ago [8 January 20014 post] on the disconnect between HS2 plans and plans for London’s next runway. The latter has (apparently) been settled, and Government has given the go-ahead for Heathrow to build a third runway. However, there appear to be no plans to integrate these two big-ticket projects with a rail spur from Heathrow to HS2. And I can understand this because, from a passenger point of view, Heathrow is code for five (and soon to be six) discrete airports. Which terminal would host the rail link? And I never hear any discussion of the time and cost of transferring from one terminal building to another at Heathrow.

In conclusion, I have not come across any rational grounds for constructing HS2. I believe that the UK has the engineering capacity to successfully build HS2. But, like Concorde, I do not sense any widespread commercial demand to travel at twice the current speed of rail journeys. For myself, I would prefer to transfer the budget for HS2 to a list of less ambitious upgrades to our current rail network.

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