HS2 – you can’t put a price on that…

There is an advert running in the UK for TalkTalk, a British telecomms company that – and this will be relevant – has not had the best press in the past: poor customer service, misleading advertising (one of TalkTalk’s TV adverts was pulled last year after the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) found connection speeds referenced in the broadcast’s voice-over did not match speeds being promoted in on-screen text), and increasing charges after slapping £48 fees for services some customers previously had for free.

The new adverts show a range of happy customers dealing with first-world problems like watching box sets, turning on the heating at home while out, and getting better gaming speeds. The tagline runs, “You can’t put a price on that…”, before, of course, putting a price on that.

Another service with similar bad press for similar reasons is the UK’s railways. Which takes us to Britain’s ‘first world problem’: the High Speed Railway project, or HS2 – which is touted to save a few minutes journey time between London and ‘the nothern powerhouse’ but which unlike TalkTalk appears to be having a real problem putting ‘a price on that’. Unless of course we define ‘price’ as an arbitrary figure that doubles in six years?

The price of a few minutes saved

Yes, doubles. The Department for Transport initially estimated the cost of the first 190-kilometre (120 mi) section, from London to Birmingham, at between £15.8 and £17.4 billion, and the entire Y-shaped 540-kilometre (335 mi) network at £30 billion. In June 2013 the projected cost (in 2011 prices) of the entire route rose by £10 billion to £42.6 billion, with an extra £7.5 billion budgeted for rolling stock for a total of £50.1 billion. In November last year estimated costs rose to £88bn, and a review panel said further increases were likely.

How likely? The BBC reported in early January that there was “overwhelming evidence” that the costs of HS2 were “out of control” and its benefits overstated. Labour peer Lord Berkeley, deputy chair of the HS2 review panel, said the high-speed rail line is likely to cost over £108bn, and that he believed MPs had been “misled” about the project costs.

Lord Berkely would appear then to disagree with former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, who was all over BBC Radio Four this morning emoting about how ‘critical’ HS2 was to – well, everything. Anyone playing ‘HS2 Bingo’ would have racked up scores very quickly. ‘Powerhouse’? Tick. ‘Economy’? Tick. ‘Capacity’? Tick. ‘Other countries have it so we need it’? Tick. Sadly though if you needed ‘irreplaceable ancient woodlands’, ‘threats to rare wildlife’, ‘unjustifiable biodiversity loss’, or even ‘it will definitely cost xxx’ to fill out your card you’d have been out of luck (though on the environment front he did bemoan planning regulations for slowing the HS2 project down – darn those protections, how he tried to water them down them when in office).

Carbon emissions and more

Improving the way we move around the planet is hugely important of course. Science agrees that man-made climate change will alter ecosystems around the planet, and vehicle exhaust emissions are an important contributor to rising atmospheric carbon levels: in 2010, a NASA study found that motor vehicles were the largest net contributor of climate change pollution in the world). On the other hand, the Woodland Trust describes HS2 as “the single biggest threat to the UK’s ancient woods, with 108 at risk of loss or damage”

The construction of a railway line equivalent to a four-lane motorway will have a devastating effect on the natural environment – over 130 wildlife sites on the first stage alone will be directly affected, including 10 Sites of Special Scientific Interest, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and 50 ancient woodlands.

The UK government announced on 2 October last year that work in all ancient woods would be deferred until the completion of its review of HS2, but should the full route go ahead, HS2 will cause damage to European, national and county-important species.

A number of European Protected Species are found within the proposed route corridor, including Otter, Great Crested Newt and several species of bats. Nationally protected species such as stag beetle, smooth and great crested newts, common frog, slow-worm, common lizard, European water vole, and Eurasian badger are found within the impact zone.


HS2 Ltd (the company responsible for developing and promoting HS2) has pledged to replace millions of trees with millions of other trees, perhaps believing that uprooting ecosystems that have developed over hundreds of years and replacing them with saplings and plastic tree guards is a fair swop.

The Woodland Trust begs to differ (again) saying in 2018 that, “This is utter greenwash nonsense from an organisation trying to pretend that HS2 isn’t the most environmentally destructive infrastructure project this country has seen in decades…This is like smashing a Ming vase and replacing it with bargain basement crockery.” Take that, HS2 Ltd…

The UK government set a new target in 2019 to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, and another claim made by HS2 Ltd is that the trains would help the UK to meet lower carbon emission targets. It is (to use Osborne’s word) critical that we manage to do that, but how accurate are HS2 Ltd’s claims? According to HS2 Action Alliance, official forecasts show that HS2 will actually involve millions of passengers switching to high-speed trains, which actually emit more carbon than existing rail services. The original carbon calculations also downplayed the emissions from construction and use of materials (a report commissioned by the Department for Transport described as ‘significant’).

Other arguments

Other pro-HS2 arguments have a rather desperate sound to them. According to proponents HS2 is ‘vital to the UK’s continued economic growth’. It will (according to recent tweets from HS2 Ltd) “more than double evening peak seats from #Leeds to #Doncaster”. It will “bring over £92 billion of benefits”.

It is impossible to have infinite upward growth on a small planet, even if we don’t factor in our unsustainable use of resources and the inconvenient fact that many billions of other animals and plants live here too. More seats? How about improving the trains we already have, or encouraging working from home, or re-organise working hours so that we’re not all piling onto our over-loaded transport systems at the same time. And I’m no economist, but while £92 billion in benefits must have sounded quite impressive when the costs of HS2 was somewhere below £50billion, when the alleged benefits fall below the skyrocketing costs they’re nowhere near as persuasive.

Oh, and what about those voters who ‘lent’ (to use the jargon) the Tories their votes in the last general election? Surely they can be worked into the argument somehow. Of course they can. Parliament only went back to work in the last few days but the Conservative mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, told Boris Johnson yesterday that “cancelling HS2 would fail the new Tory voters who returned him to No 10 last month...The prime minister helped build his 80-seat majority in part thanks to a huge swathe of new voters in the West Midlands. They are now expecting him to deliver on his promise to rebalance the economy and power up our region. The first clear and decisive step that can be taken to fulfil that promise is to back HS2.”

Well, that settles that then. Though it seems far more likely that all those new voters are simply lining up to demand better rail services full stop. And which party has been in power for the last decade during which “passenger satisfaction with rail services has fallen to a 10-year low”? Maybe Andy Street can give us the answer to that question.

Whatever the arguments, HS2 will destroy or impact important wildlife-rich habitat in a country that is rapidly losing its precious biodiversity (as stated plainly in the State of Nature Report 2019) for the first world problem of saving a few minutes on a rail journey. Costs are spiralling ever-upwards (ironically because high speed lines cost more to build safely) while public sector expenditure on biodiversity in the UK, as a proportion of GDP, has fallen by 42% since a peak in 2008/09.

For all the alleged financial (and voter) benefits, we will have fewer of those special places where we can ALL benefit (mentally and physically) from the positive effects of ‘green spaces’. And however clever the advertising experts might be, they really can’t put a price on that…