High Speed 2 (HS2) is a controversial planned train network that promises to “form the backbone” of Britain’s transport infrastructure. Initially proposed in 2009 under the Brown administration, the rail network will run from London to Manchester via Birmingham. It offers the potential for economic growth and development, as well as the environmental impact of an efficient network that reduces reliance on car journeys.
Yet ecological campaigners, think tanks and other bodies have criticized HS2’s implementation, with groups like The Wildlife Trust pointing to its “irreparable damage” to natural habitats across the country. There has also been a great deal of backlash against homes affected by the planning and engineering of the new railway.
If you’re one of the many observers still confused about what the HS2 project is all about, this article walks through the nuts and bolts of it, its pros and cons, and what HS2 means for the future of the UK.
What is HS2?
The purpose of HS2 is to improve transport connections between towns and cities in the North, Midlands and South of England. Its manufacturers claim that it will be “Europe’s fastest train”, reaching a top speed of 225mph. The project requires building 64 tunnels throughout the country — around 26 miles in total.
The Government remains convinced that HS2 is the most effective way to provide much-needed additional rail capacity across the country. The network is also seen to support economic growth in the regions by creating construction jobs. Once completed, it has been claimed that HS2’s extra capacity will reduce carbon emissions from other transport, such as short-distance air travel. There have been hopes that HS2 can boost economic growth by making commuter journeys easier (for example, it makes Birmingham to London route 29 minutes faster). Other cited potential benefits of the project include decreased road traffic accidents as a result of reduced car usage.
How will HS2 work?
According to HS2 Limited — the firm charged with overseeing the development of the new railway — the network will “be powered by zero carbon energy from day one of operation, offering a cleaner alternative to long-distance car journeys and domestic flights”. As a high-speed train, not unlike the ‘bullet’ trains in Japan, China, Spain and France, it will run on tracks similar to conventional gauge systems, but made from materials with greater strength and durability.
Train tracks of this kind typically have two power cars, which are synchronized engines at each end. These are powered by roof-mounted pantographs — mechanical linkages that send electricity into the trains. They are also supplied electricity by overhead power lines, usually consisting of three uninsulated cables to generate a three-phase power supply.
This setup is common because high-speed rail requires high-voltage power supply systems. While the railway power will be purely electric, this is no guarantee that it will be completely eco-friendly, however. As power solutions expert XP Power clarifies, green power supplies should have a “high active mode efficiency and low no load power consumption, complying with the latest global energy efficiency standards”. However, the jury is still out on whether HS2’s final construction will adhere to these.
The contractor that wins the final bid for completing the project will also supply stations, depots, portals and remaining parts of the railway system with a high voltage non-traction power network. On top of that, fifty substations have to be built in order to maintain electrification across the tracks.
When will HS2 go live?
The construction of the new railway has been divided into three phases:
- Phase 1: linking London and the West Midlands
- Phase 2(a): connecting the West Midlands and the North via Crewe
- Phase 2(b): finishing the railway to Manchester, the East Midlands and the North
Phase 1 was originally slated to start in 2026, but this is looking increasingly unrealistic. HS2 has been subject to continuous delays during its development and construction. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in the UK Parliament in 2020 declared that HS2 had “no clear end in sight”, with allegations of the Department of Transport giving misleading information about the ability of HS2 Ltd to deliver on time and within budget. For perspective, the original estimated cost for the network was £55bn — it now stands between £72bn and £98bn.
In spite of this, the UK government has maintained that the proposed network is the best way to create the important additional capacity for railways throughout the country.
Is HS2 worthwhile?
Strictly speaking, we can’t know just yet — as it stands, a single line of track is yet to be laid down. However, from what we already know about the project’s goals, it is difficult to see how it will meet them entirely. While the fast new railway promises extra capacity and speed for commuters, alongside being entirely powered by zero carbon energy, it will also destroy hundreds of wildlife sites across the country. This last fact has led to a protracted debate and litters of protests campaigning against this “immense and irreversible destruction”.
The railway has also resulted in changes to road systems, impacting local businesses, congestion and public footpaths in construction areas. We also know that, although its energy supply claims to be zero carbon, HS2 will not cut carbon emissions on the whole. “According to HS2’s own forecasts”, writes Patrick Barkham in the Guardian, “even over 120 years, its overall construction and operation will cause carbon emissions of 1.49m tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent”.
The UK’s rail network is no doubt due for an upgrade, as HS2 seeks to update transport links that were originally built in the Victorian era. Nevertheless, its advocates cannot deny that it is an increasingly expensive and inefficient project, with the opening of Phase 1 pushed back by a decade. Claims for its positive environmental impact also stand on shaky ground, to say the least.
With a planned completion date of 2040, however, as iScience argues, there is still time for developers and critics to find common ground in order to make the new network more strategic and iron out some of these flaws, so long as it’s not too late.