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Proposed HS2 network

High Speed 2 (HS2) is a planned high speed railway in the United Kingdom, with its first phase under construction and future stages awaiting approval. HS2 will be the second major high-speed rail line in Britain; the first is High Speed 1 (HS1), which connects London to the Channel Tunnel and was opened in the mid-2000s. Upon completion, the railway will link London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds with a new "Y"-shaped network of 360 km/h (225 mph) tracks.[1]

HS2 will provide upgrades to the terminal stations of London Euston, Manchester Piccadilly and Leeds, whereas Birmingham will be served by a new terminus known as Birmingham Curzon Street. Phase 1 will create a new high speed line between London and Birmingham, and Phase 2 will create two branch lines from Birmingham north either side of the Pennines. Once completed, sixteen trains per hour are planned to use the line either wholly or in part.

The project has been subject to both support and opposition: supporters of the project claim that HS2 will provide increased capacity and reliability to combat rising passenger numbers; opponents of the project claim that the project is neither environmentally or financially sustainable. In response to criticism of the project, in 2019 the government ordered a review of the project chaired by the project's former chairman, Douglas Oakervee; this recommended that the entire project proceed as planned.

The costs of HS2 were estimated in 2010 to be between £30.9 billion and £36 billion; in 2015, this estimate was combined with the cost of rolling stock to give a budget of £56.6 billion. Oakervee's review in 2019 estimated the project would cost between £80.7 billion and £88.7 billion. After a judicial review on environmental grounds initiated by television presenter Chris Packham failed, construction on the line began in September 2020.

Phase 1 of HS2 from London to Birmingham
Phase 2 of HS2 to Leeds and Manchester
from Wikipedia


Opponents of HS2 claim that:

  • it is unnecessary; that, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, teleworking makes high speed rail transport obsolete,
  • it is elitist, benefiting only wealthy business people able to afford fares on the high speed trains,
  • it has minimal benefits, such as merely reducing the journey time between London and Birmingham by 20 minutes,
  • it is destructive of wildlife, especially ancient woodlands,
  • it would be better to upgrade existing lines,
  • it's extremely expensive,
  • that the money to be spent on the project could be better used for the NHS, or education, etc.

An example of some of these objections is an article "I have spent a decade fighting HS2, and the arguments to support it keep getting worse" by Joe Rukin, the manager of the Stop HS2 campaign, in The Independent on 12 Aug 2019.

Much of what follows describes the case for HS2, and rebuttals to some objections, presented by proponents Gareth Dennis[2] (from his own @GarethDennis account and from that of his @PermanentRail consultancy company), and Greens for HS2 (@Greens4HS2 on Twitter). SfS has been unable to find similarly detailed counter-arguments - please get in touch if you can help.

Why HS2?

In an article "HS2 is the only option for Britain’s railways" in The Independent on 22 Aug 2019, Jon Stone writes:

The arguments against HS2 are simple, and superficially attractive: why are we spending £55bn on a high-speed line between London and the north, when commuters outside the southeast are cramming onto unreliable, expensive, and infrequent old trains?

Some people seem to think HS2 is about “knocking 35 minutes off London to Birmingham”. It isn’t. Yes, it will dramatically reduce journey times: the whole project will cut London-Manchester from two hours to one; it takes around an hour off the journey to Scotland; Birmingham to Newcastle is cut from three hours 15 minutes down to two hours. Birmingham to Nottingham, which currently takes over an hour, falls to an almost ridiculous 19 minutes. One misconception is that these will be special “high-speed” premium services with higher ticket prices for rich passengers. That isn’t true – these will be the ordinary journey times between those cities, integrated into the existing network.

But speed is not the main point of the new line. The objective is capacity, and not just capacity for fast intercity services, either, but for those local regional and commuter services between small towns that have been so neglected. The complicated bit is explaining why that is.

Britain’s railways were largely built in the Victorian era, for a different kind of travel. Today, the same lines carry a mix of express intercity trains – the kind which HS2 will take – and stopping local and commuter services, the kind people use to get to work, or pop to a neighbouring town.

This mix is a very inefficient way to run a railway, for a reason that is quite obvious if you think about it: trains cannot overtake each other on the same set of tracks. They would bang into the back of one another if they tried. Not good. To get around this, local stopping trains need a large gap behind them in the timetable, so the express trains behind them do not catch up. That reduces the number of trains you can have per hour on a line, dramatically reducing its capacity for every type of service – local and express.

The engineering thinking behind HS2 is to take those express services off the older mainlines, leaving them for stopping local and commuter services. When trains are all travelling at roughly the same speed on a line, you can fit a lot more in, because the gaps needed between them are smaller.

HS2 will take express trains off the West Coast Main Line that links London with Birmingham and the cities of the northwest; the Midland Main Line that links London with the East Midlands and Sheffield; and to an extent the East Coast Main Line that goes up to Leeds and Newcastle. That frees up capacity across a huge swathe of the country for local services, and it’s the whole rationale behind the project.

So if the plan is to improve commuter services, why not build a new commuter line instead of a new one for expresses? It wouldn’t make sense: these existing lines are already good for slow trains, and they go into the centres of towns and cities, which have since expanded around them. A new high-speed line for expresses can make use of engineering advances since the 19th century to speed up journeys, and doesn’t have to go into as many built up areas as a local line would, where the need for tunnelling and demolitions would make it more expensive and disruptive. And making a line high-speed doesn’t actually cost that much more, either, if you’re building one anyway. But the key point is that local services benefit, despite the new line being for express trains.

HS2 will also bring other direct benefits to cities and towns that aren’t London. Northern Powerhouse Rail (stupid name) is the government’s plan to connect up the cities of the north of England with high-speed rail. It’s currently in development, but the plan, as put together by northern councils, relies on vast sections of HS2 track. Liverpool to Manchester; Sheffield to Leeds and towards York and Newcastle – these bits of NPR will use parts of HS2.

HS2 and better connections between non-London cities aren’t an either/or: the two projects are intrinsically linked. If HS2 is scrapped, who knows when a government will next be brave enough to try a major rail project again.

read more

From Twitter thread by Gareth Dennis:

I'll start by pointing you to this thread explaining the purpose of HS2 from a railway perspective:

Mixture of traffic types

[3] The vast majority of Britain's railways are a jack of all trades and a master of none.

Because of our mix of fast, slow, non-stop and stopping trains, we aren't able to squeeze services together to get the most out of the existing infrastructure.

The fastest services eat up the most capacity by forcing everything else to get out of the way - trains can't overtake on a two track railway.

Building HS2 unlocks a massive amount of space on the existing railway by segregating high speed services onto their own pair of tracks.

Once HS2 is operating, services on the existing railway can bunch up nice and closely together, more like Crossrail or Thameslink. Capacity can leap upwards.

Because of its speed, HS2 does this for the WCML, MML and ECML. It's three lines for the price of one.

To achieve this step-change in capacity without HS2, you'd need to add two extra tracks to each of the three mainlines coming out of London right up to Manchester and Leeds, as well as rebuilding junctions and stations.

Remember how well the WCML/GWML route modernisations went?

This would not only be impossibly time-consuming and expensive, but it would impact on thousands more properties and environmentally sensitive areas, too.

Most crucially, we haven't got enough engineers in the country to deliver three simultaneous massive route upgrades.

What can HS2 deliver for the existing railway? All the freed-up space that HS2 leaves behind can be filled with local and regional trains.

How many people can our railways carry 1 - Gareth Dennis.jpg
How many people can our railways carry 2 - Gareth Dennis.jpg

Elsewhere, the alleviation of pressure on key bottlenecks will improve services across the UK, from Aberystwyth to Acle.

Transport now accounts for the largest proportion of the UK's carbon emissions... Poor air quality kills 36000 people a year, too.

We are often asked if investing in HS2 is better than upgrading our existing railway infrastructure and building or reopening more local railways.

Put simply, there's not enough capacity on our current railway to add new or reopened extra bits to it, as there's no space on existing tracks or in existing stations to run more services where these new lines meet the existing network.

To reopen old railways, you need HS2.

The best way to reduce transport emissions is by a massive modal shift away from road vehicles, and the best way to achieve that is by massively increasing rail capacity to carry more people and freight.

As we've just shown, HS2 is the cheapest and quickest way to achieve this!

Clearly, HS2 isn't the end of the story. There's more to be done between Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds, between the Midlands and the South West and towards the North East and Scotland.

But HS2 is the first and biggest piece of the puzzle.


Transport is now the UK's biggest source of GHG emissions, and it is still getting worse.

There are lots of underlying reasons for this, but fundamentally it is because too many people/things use road transport.

[4] 25 years ago, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution published a scathing report on the Department for Transport, saying in no uncertain terms that the DfT had failed to provide the UK with "an effective [or] environmentally sound transport policy".

You might think things would have changed after that, but if we look at the UK’s emissions again - this time comparing the total emissions since 1990 - you can see that @transportgovuk hasn't changed at all. Sustainable transport advocates are still fighting an uphill battle.

UK emissions by sector - Permanent Rail Engineering.png

It's not all bad news, though.

Despite road transport getting dirtier, the rail industry has been successfully reducing its own footprint. If you normalise emissions by modal share, you can see the success we are having in decarbonising our sector.

UK rail v road emissions - Permanent Rail Engineering.png

A significant part of that is down to more electric trains running under the wires, and more miles of wires for them to run under.

As of 2018, over 14000km of the GB railway network is electrified – that’s 46% of it. However, electrification has stalled again.

Political will is a fragile thing, and building experience in the industry is vital to ensure that we don’t lose it, as happened with electrification schemes.

Experience essentially means skilled people in the right roles, whether they are technical, managerial or commercial.

There are over 600,000 people supporting rail, either directly or as part of an incredibly varied and complex supply chain... The trouble is, we need 10,000 new starters a year just to maintain our current skills level.

If we want to grow, we need even more.

Looking at traction and rolling stock alone, there is already a shortage of 4,500 people...

As we've seen, it isn’t money that limits the work we can deliver - it is the number of skilled people we can bring to bear on transport projects that influences their success.

But what is causing this skills gap, and why is it growing?

An increasing demand for skilled people, an ageing workforce, changing skillsets, difficulties in attracting people into STEM and poor workforce diversity... These are all significant challenges to overcome.

It takes years to develop apprentices and graduates. Yet the rail industry barely has a six month view of the work that lies ahead of it.

How can employers recruit or train staff if they don’t know what size their workforce must be, or what skills they will need?

Britain’s railways need a long-term plan.

A plan that pulls railway infrastructure investment out of the political cycle, that fits within a wider transport strategy, but is defined by our industry and its skills and experience #Network2050

Progress is being made, too.

Back in December 2018, the UK government agreed to a rail sector deal as part of its wider industrial strategy... The main goal of this was to "create conditions that will help the industry overcome the root causes of today’s railway challenges".

In 2017, @NCHSR opened its doors with the capacity to teach over 3000 apprentices a year.

Alongside @NSARLtd and @NTARail, the intention is to create 20000 apprenticeships in the rail industry by 2020. The wider industry needs to play its part, though...

The skills gap is not going to be solved by one organisation.

Training 1000s of skilled people a year is going to require collaboration between the professional institutions, further education and higher education establishments, and of course from front-line employers.

Modal shift

Whilst lots of the "people" journeys are short, urban ones that should be shifted from cars to active travel modes (walking/cycling), these efforts would also bring more people onto the public transport network.

It also doesn't fix the "things" journeys - HGVs, in other words.

Even a diesel railway emits significantly less tCO2e/t.km than road transport, so a fully-electrified one wipes the floor with road, even if you use electric cars or HGVs.

(Rail electrification isn't happening fast enough, but that's another story...)

[5] Firstly, a quick look at the comparative emissions benefits of modal shift versus decarbonisation - that's "changing the way people travel" versus "changing the way trains are powered".

Modal shift is much more important.

Emissions for modal shift - Permanent Rail Engineering.png

To understand why HS2 can enable and drive significant modal shift away from both road and air transport and thus generate significant greenhouse gas emissions reductions, see [earlier thread].

Clearly (alongside @Rail_Elec/@RailIndustry) we also strongly support decarbonising the railway network, which in almost all cases means installing overhead electrification (see our blog on the subject from a while back - https://permanentrail.co.uk/blog/20190304-alternativestoelectrification/)... #ElectrifyAllTheThings

So we need the railways to absorb a hefty amount of traffic, right?

The trouble is, our railways are already reaching their maximum capacity so fare prices remain high and we can't carry more people/stuff anyway.

[6] To start off, here's a look at passenger growth over the last half century... Modal share, pax density and daily distance travelled per capita Chart with upwards trend

Data from @railandroad (http://orr.gov.uk/statistics) and @GOVUK (http://gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets).

GB rail trends - modal share - Permanent Way Engineering.jpeg
GB rail trends - passenger density - Permanent Way Engineering.jpeg

The quickest and cheapest way to create the capacity for more local/regional and freight trains is by building HS2.

The thread at the top explains why.

[7] Is it possible to sum up why HS2 is a really good idea in one ten-second long sentence?

You decide:

This isn't about growth for growth's sake; it isn't about "business as usual" - HS2 is all about emptying our roads of cars, vans and HGVs, getting our urban spaces and clean air back, and doing our best to reverse the Climate Emergency.

Ancient woodlands

A criticism of HS2 is its impact on ancient woodlands.

From Gareth Dennis:

HS2's route was very carefully selected to minimise damage (such as by weaving through SACs and SSSIs)...

However, some loss of ancient woodland was inevitable given that the definition of ancient woodland is pretty loose and they are very spread about.

[Here Dennis gives a discussion on rail track alignment design]

Nobody has ever shown me a section of the HS2 alignment that could be altered to reduce the impact on ancient woodland in one location without increasing the impact on ancient woodland in another.

If you look at the map of ancient woodland, it is scattered about like polka dots:

Map of ancient woodland - Gareth Dennis.jpeg

Increase HS2's weaviness and you not only increase its whole-life carbon cost (more curves means more accelerating/braking/maintenance), but you also end up needing to build three new lines instead of one, and that will be much more damaging.

Widening existing railway lines would have a much greater impact on ancient woodland (and everything else) too, as many well-established habitats back right onto them.

Just look at the adjacent London to Aylesbury Line to see what I mean:

London-Aylesbury - Gareth Dennis.jpeg

As a result of years of design refinement, the whole HS2 route (from London to Leeds/Manchester) impacts on less than 0.01% (that's less than 1/10000th) of the UK's ancient woodland.

Compare that to the damage done by a short length of new motorway:

[8] According to the @WoodlandTrust, the 470 mile long #HS2 railway will directly impact on 58 hectares of ancient woodland.

They also calculate that the 14.5 mile long, 6-lane wide Lower Thames Crossing motorway will directly impact 54 hectares of ancient woodland.

HS2 v lower Thames crossing.png

To put it another way, the Lower Thames Crossing will be 37 times more damaging per mile than HS2, and that is only with respect to ancient woodland.

The new motorway will induce further road usage, increasing the UK's GHG emissions and contributing to climate change.

HS2 v lower Thames crossing per mile.png

I'll quote from one of the (normally hostile) House of Lords committees scrutinising the project:

"All ancient woodland is irreplaceable, but the loss of less than one [hectare] out of about 11,000 in the [Chilterns] AONB is, we consider, a remarkable achievement."

From Greens4HS2:

As Greens we share with all our party colleagues a huge respect for the natural world and a love of our country's woodland and the wildlife it supports. We mourn the loss of ancient woodland wherever it happens. HS2 sadly causes the loss of some of this woodland.

However, one of the reasons why we've set up this group is all the fake news about HS2's environmental impact, some echoed by prominent people who should know better. The debate should be based in fact and a sense of proportion. So a thread about HS2 and woodland...

First up - no, 108 ancient woodlands are NOT being "destroyed" by HS2. The source for that, the Wildlife Trusts' report has listed all the woodlands in a 1-km wide strip around the railway, whether it actually crosses them or not. Saying that all these woodlands are being "destroyed" is spin. We should expect better from such a source.

Phases 1 and 2a of HS2 directly impact 43 ancient woodland sites; just 39ha of woodland are lost for the whole 155 miles of new railway. (Sources: Phase 1 Ancient Woodland Strategy, Phase 2 Ancient Woodland Strategy These are good documents, worth a read).

Most of the sites lose less than 1ha. Crackley Woods, where XR have been protesting, loses 0.9 of its 20ha (map); South Cubbington, also a protest site, loses 2 of its 36ha. (map)

While this irrevocable harm is massively regrettable, it needs to be put into context: if we don't systemically decarbonise our society, every woodland habitat we have will be disfigured beyond recognition by climate change.

Next up - HS2 is NOT causing the worst deforestation since WW1: this is a ridiculous claim. 212,000ha were lost in WW2; forestry and agriculture since took half of all ancient woodland (Conservation handbooks: A brief history of woodlands in Britain » The 20th century). England now has 364,000ha. HS2 impacts less than 1/10,000 of it.

Some context. The Lower Thames Crossing, a 15-mile motorway, impacts 45ha of ancient woodland. And that’s just 15 of the 4,000 miles of new road that the government has plans for. Road schemes like the A14 chew up land like this, yet we are silent.

Highways England announcement of opening of A428 Black Cat to Caxton Gibbet

And see this

The total area of ancient woodland affected by HS2 is roughly the same as Heathrow's car parking spaces (51000 spaces @ 2.4m x 4.8m = 59 ha). And that doesn't include the roads between the spaces.

about the car parking space at just one airport. HS2 is NOT a major threat to habitat or woodland, and we Greens should focus our opposition on the schemes which are - now, before it’s too late.

We’ll follow this thread up with others on why do we need HS2 at all; and why can’t it be routed round all the woodland.

Just 20 minutes quicker to Birmingham

Greens for HS2 (@Greens4HS2 on twitter) produced this commentary (Threadreader unroll)

We keep coming across some misunderstandings from Greens about what #HS2 is, where it goes , what it's for and how much it costs. So here's a thread dealing with a few.

Let's start with where it goes. "Just 20 minutes quicker to Birmingham", people say. Nope: on the day that #HS2 starts, in 2029, its trains will also serve Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow. Here's the service pattern for day 1. Each line = one train per hour both ways:

Greens4HS2 fig01.png

The trains run on the new railway between London and Birmingham, then continue their journeys on the existing railway - which will be being upgraded in the meantime to smooth things out. This is just like French TGVs do.

A couple of years later, the new Euston station will open and more trains can run: 3 per hour to B'ham and Manchester as well as other services. Here's the service pattern (you can see these in the Business Case here assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/upl…):

Greens4HS2 fig02.png

And they'll be much faster than now: Birmingham 32 mins quicker at just 49 mins; Liverpool 40 mins quicker; Manchester eventually 1 hour quicker at 1hr 7 mins; Glasgow eventually 50 mins quicker.

When the other part of HS2 is built - "Phase 2b" to Manchester, Leeds and York - a whole slew of new services will run. New trains to Sheffield, Leeds, York, Newcastle and Edinburgh. Here's the service pattern:

Greens4HS2 fig03.png

And of course, these new trains replace the express trains on the existing network, so that it's freed up for much better regional and local services. This gives thousands of people in and around Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds the opportunity to use train and ditch the car.

So it's not just a fast line to Birmingham - it's equivalent to a reboot of the whole railway network in the Midlands / North - the groundwork for Midlands Connect Rail and Northern Powerhouse Rail. Next up - how much it's going to cost and could it fund the NHS instead....

Cost over £100 billion

From Greens4HS2:

... As promised, the next misunderstanding - HS2 is going to cost over £100bn. Nope. Read on.

HS2's total cost will be in the range of £81bn to £88bn. That's for the whole thing, London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, with new stations in those places and all the trains. Let's clear up a few things...

Firstly, it's really hard to work out how much large infrastructure projects cost - like REALLY HARD. No-one ever gets it right. And HS2 has some awkward factors which make it harder - we'll deal with them later on.

The most up-to-date numbers come from the Oakervee review, which is here: assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/upl…. It's not that long and quite an informative read.

The first phase of HS2, from London to Birmingham, will cost between £41bn and £43bn at 2019 prices. That includes the new stations at Euston, Old Oak Common, Birmingham Interchange and Birmingham Curson Street, plus all the trains.

At the same time as Phase1, Phase 2a is going to be built. That's the section from Birmingham to Crewe which allows HS2 trains to Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow to skip Birmingham. That will cost between £4bn and £4.5bn.

By now these prices have got a good handle on them so shouldn't change too much. But they're more expensive than they should be. Why? the main reasons is government made the contractors liable for all failures, so they raised their prices.

That added maybe 30% to the cost. (Nigel Harris, @RAIL, the widely-respected editor of RAIL magazine, has had words about this - you can read his thoughts about it and how no mainstream journalists managed to pick it up here: railmagazine.com/research-hub/c…)

The second phase of HS2, from Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds, is expected to cost £36bn to £40bn. The route for that is still being designed so there's some uncertainty. But lessons will be learned from Phase 1. So that could go either way.

So what about that £106bn? It's an unofficial estimate submitted to Oakervee, analysed and rejected - below is what he said about it. It's a big number and the papers got hold of it, but it has no sound basis.

Greens4HS2 fig04.png

Anything else is speculation for now. While we're on the subject of costs, we're going to a thread on why cancelling HS2, as some campaigners want to do, won't free up any money to spend on the NHS or cycle schemes - in fact it'll cost money.

Further reading

Oakervee review Dec 2019

Comment in Rail magazine

HS2 – towards a zero carbon future Ralph Smyth; High Speed Rail Group; 11 Nov 2019

Footnotes and references

  1. "Review of the Technical Specification for High Speed Rail in the UK A report to Government by HS2 Ltd" HS2 Ltd/Department for Transport; Jan 2012 (Internet Archive)
  2. Gareth Dennis - @GarethDennis on Twitter - describes himself as "Railway engineer. Writer. Sustainable transport advocate. Lecturer at @BCRRE [the University of Birmingham's Centre for Railway Research and Education] etc. Leads @PWI_York [an account suspended for violating Twitter rules]. Director of @PermanentRail [Permanent Rail Engineering, "an engineering consultancy focused on strategy, design and management for sustainable transport, including railways" based in York]
  3. From Twitter thread by Permanent Rail Engineering (@PermanentRail)
  4. From https://twitter.com/PermanentRail/status/1124407862275596289
  5. From https://twitter.com/GarethDennis/status/1206959258832691200
  6. From https://twitter.com/PermanentRail/status/1160995318139371520
  7. Fronm https://twitter.com/GarethDennis/status/1191738396227592192
  8. From https://twitter.com/PermanentRail/status/1174621610604683265