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HS2 would widen the regional divide, says think tank

Words: Laura Edgar
Railway tracks / iStock-624925672

The government could improve rail journeys in all regions and nations for the cost of HS2, which will instead ‘deepen’ the regional divide.

A New Economics Foundation (NEF) report, commissioned by Friends of the Earth England, Wales and North Ireland, says that links through HS2 to Northern cities could be at risk.

The maximum the government has said it will make available to the project is £56 billion, but the first phase – from London to Birmingham – is the only section to have formal consent from Parliament and is showing signs it will cost more, NEF explained.

Should costs escalate, as costs estimate suggest they have by more than two-thirds in real terms (£33.3 billion in 2011 to £55.8 billion in 2017), the second phase of the line – to Manchester and Leeds separately – “could be in jeopardy”.

A Rail Network for Everyone highlights that HS2’s figures state that 40 per cent of the passenger benefits will flow to London, 18 per cent will go to the North West, 12 per cent to the West Midlands, and 10 per cent to Yorkshire and Humber.

This runs "significantly" ahead of the capital’s share of national gross value added, which in 2017 was 23.1 per cent, it says.

Andrew Pendleton, director of policy at NEF and one of the report’s authors, said: “Investment in the UK’s railways is urgently needed, but HS2 is trickle-down transport policy. It will be used by the wealthiest travellers, intensify the North-South investment divide and is a standalone project that simply does not integrate well enough into the existing network. It’s an expensive answer in search of a question.”

Single-adult households in the top 20 per cent by income made 20 times as many long-distance rail journeys for business in 2010 as those in the bottom 20 per cent by income. Two-adult households in the top 20 per cent made 24 times as many as those in the bottom 20 per cent, and those with children in the top bracket made seven to 12 times as many trips as those in the bottom bracket. HS2 ticket prices will likely be higher than those for the standard network, therefore the “effect can be expected to be more pronounced”.

Further to this, some versions of the Department for Transport’s demand model are based on commuters having an average household income of £60,091 and leisure travellers having an average household income of £45,583 (both in 2010/2011 prices). The median household income for the top 10 per cent of UK earners in 2010-2012 was £60,700. NEF says this suggests that the HS2 demand model forecasts that its average commuting passenger will be in the top 10 per cent of the income distribution.

Professor Paul Salveson, a rail expert and an author of the report, said: “The UK needs new rail lines and it needs fast new rail lines, but HS2 is an engineering rather than a strategy-led project. Government should not put away its cheque book, but rather think again about how the money it is poised to invest in a railway for the rich few can instead bring benefits to everyone across the whole rail network and stop the endless cycle of investment skewed towards the South East that always becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

The report sets out several recommendations, including establishing a National Rail Investment Fund for the existing network and to redress the four-to-one regional imbalance in transport spending between the south and north of England. According to NEF, a package of £55.2 billion spent over the next 10 years, including £18.9 billion for the north of England, would help commuters, speed up long distance journeys, cut carbon emissions and bring benefits to many regions that won’t be served by HS2.

Other recommendations include:

  • Full electrification of much of the northern rail network.
  • The reopening of the trans-Pennine Woodhead line between Manchester and Sheffield to provide a fourth east-west link in the North.
  • A Bradford Crossrail that link the two lines that terminate in Bradford to put the city at the epicentre of northern rail.
  • The full electrification of the Midland and Great Western lines.
  • The creation of more four-track sections on the three-core, north-south mainlines and of bridges to take slower, regional lines over intercity lines to speed up long distance journeys.

A Rail Network for Everyone can be found on the NEF website (pdf).

Image credit | iStock