Don’t railroad it through — rethink HS2

A new paper from the free market, neoliberal think tank the Adam Smith Institute says the UK Government should rethink the controversial HS2 project - and sets out a number of alternatives to save time, save money, and deliver an improved service for rail passengers. The report argues that:

  • HS2 risks being a massive black hole for taxpayer money with virtually nothing to show for it returning just 78 pence of value for every £1 of taxpayers' money spent

  • Under HS2, a number of key northern cities destinations will lose direct trains to London: including Lancaster, Carlisle and Durham.

  • The West Coast, East Coast and Midland Main Lines should all be upgraded at current bottlenecks to four tracks to improve capacity.

  • The Great Central Railway should be reopened between London and Rugby. 

  • Spur lines between the Main Lines and major cities like Birmingham and Manchester have speeds around half of that on the WCML/ECML. Key routes should all be upgraded to high speed electrified lines at 125mph

  • Open a new London station at Old Oak Common to increase future northern train capacity.

As HS2 continues to run substantially over budget and fail to meet deadlines, rail expert Adrian Quine argues for a rethink on the UK’s rail policy. Ahead of the planned review to HS2, he writes for the Adam Smith Institute and sets out a number of less costly alternatives to the failed project — including upgrading existing routes with new signalling, doubling the number of tracks, reopening mothballed lines, and timetable redesigns.

HS2 is a product of political thinking, poor management and overly complex design. The project has been mismanaged from the outset, with too much emphasis on a misguided belief that it was the only solution to Britain’s ailing rail network, the free market think tank argues. 

The paper argues that the failure to deliver HS2 on-time and on-budget is just another example of a long string of failed rail projects. Including Crossrail, which was allocated a budget of £15.4 billion and was supposed to have opened in December 2018. It has currently spent £17.6 billion and is still under construction with opening delayed until early 2021.

Instead of focussing on a single project with rapidly escalating costs — government should instead admit that the project is no longer fit for purpose. 

HS2 was designed to increase capacity and reduce time spent on trains. The new report details smarter ways of achieving the same outcome for less money and in less time. 

UK rail passenger numbers have doubled in the past 15 years and are predicted to grow substantially going forward. 

There are a number of ways to improve Britain’s railways, without breaking the bank or causing undue disruption to towns and cities. The Adam Smith Institute report sets out a five point plan to replace HS2:

  1. Upgrading existing routes with new signalling, doubling the number of tracks, reopening mothballed lines, and timetable redesigns;

  2. Building new sections of conventional high speed, including between the mainlines and Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham, and upgrading northern sections of the mainlines;

  3. Maximising current infrastructure by targeting bottlenecks on conventional lines,  including building flyovers at key junctions, upgrading the Chiltern route to Birmingham or reopening the southern section of the Great Central railway, raising line speeds to at least 125mph;

  4. Upgrading stations in London, Birmingham and Manchester; and

  5. Updating train facilities like wifi, seat quality, and charging points to improve passenger experience.

New conventional high speed between major cities like Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham, upgraded northern sections of the mainlines and reduced bottlenecks would, the think tank argues, altogether cost less than the projected £106bn pricetag for HS2.

In addition to existing lines there is potential too to look again at reopening the Great Central route between London and Rugby, with a new London terminus opened at Old Oak Common to increase capacity on northern trains coming into the capital. 

In order to deliver the rail infrastructure of the future, the Government should also look to private sector to fund projects. The Adam Smith Institute says that if private sector players are trying to get involved with a specific project it is an indication it would receive enough patronage to be profitable in its own right.

The paper comes out as the government is reviewing the viability of HS2 as currently envisaged. New options on high speed rail securing the same objectives at a lower cost, at just the right time.

Adrian Quine, rail expert and report author, said:

“HS2 has become the most out of control project of our generation. There is no disputing that the UK needs new rail infrastructure but HS2 does not deliver what it claims. It is ideologically driven, over engineered and will not solve the problems facing rail travellers today.

“Britain does need new lines in places and does need investment in rail to support the economy and social mobility. So much can be achieved with our existing network rather than applying an HS2 sledgehammer to crack a nut.”


Matthew Lesh, Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute, said:

“HS2 is a massive white elephant - but it’s not too late to abandon this project that’s over budget and missing deadlines before it causes any more national embarrassment. It is broadly accepted that we need to increase capacity on the intercity rail lines, but this can be done without a £106 billion price tag for the taxpayer. 

“We can upgrade bottlenecks in existing lines, build new lines into major cities like Manchester, Birmingham, and Leeds, and reopen unused lines. It’s time to say goodbye to the failed HS2 model and think of innovative, cost-effective solutions to deliver the railway network of the future.” 

Notes to editors:  

For further comments or to arrange an interview, contact Matt Kilcoyne, matt@adamsmith.org | 07904 099599.

The Adam Smith Institute is a free market, neoliberal think tank based in London. It advocates classically liberal public policies to create a richer, freer world.