The Government has just unveiled the route map for the UK’s high speed rail network. So will HS2 help the cities on the line? Will it narrow the North-South divide, as some Ministers claim? And what about places left out?
Here’s what I wrote back in 2010, when the detailed modelling was done, and drawing on the international evidence. The punchlines are:
So what does HS2 mean for cities? Urban firms and travellers are the big winners, which is good news for cities if more productive businesses raise wages or employment. Some cities get the kudos of being on the line, and may get a regeneration boost from new stations – although that could turn into a windfall gain for developers. But fairly few firms will relocate, and agglomeration impacts will be pretty small.
On this basis, HS2 isn’t likely to fundamentally change the UK’s economic geography. Rather, it will speed up the economic geography we already have.
… Those who gain from HS2 (business, core cities, those in ‘the North’) are strongly in favour; those who lose (communities and homeowners along the line) are vehemently against. Local opponents of HS2 are hardly irrational – quite the opposite. So rather than handing a windfall gain to business by pegging HS2 fares to conventional fares, HS2 tickets should be pricier – at least in first class. That provides another way for taxpayers to recoup some of the initial outlay. … The agglomeration benefits for Phase 2 (Manchester and Leeds) seem much larger than Phase 1 (London to Birmingham). Why? Rather than connecting two relatively distant cities, Phase 2 links a lot of nearby places (e.g. Sheffield/Meadowhall to Leeds in 20 mins), and provides indirect access to big cities not on the line (e.g. from Manchester to Liverpool). The fact of HS2 thus strengthens the case for complementary investments like the Northern Hub, which will bring Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds closer together.
Two other points. First, as John Tomaney argued on radio 4 this morning, the evidence suggests HS2’s economic impacts are pretty complex, and the net effect isn’t clear. Like him and others, I’m basically an agnostic.
Second, to repeat – it’s crucial to spend money on better links between Northern cities and more London-centric high speed lines. As Richard Leese suggested in the same piece, for policymakers this is not an either/or. Thankfully Ministers agree, and are feeding cash into boring but important investments like the Northern Hub, as well as the bigger and shinier HS2.
Update, May 2013: The National Audit Office has published its own report, which echoes many of these points.