HS2 is a carbon-intensive vanity project
The current plan for High Speed Two (HS2), a new railway line from London to the north, is predicated on the idea that it will shift passengers from planes to trains and will therefore produce a reduction in carbon emissions. But it's hard to see how that's likely to happen.
The first thing to say is that, operationally, high speed rail can never be low energy, but it can be low carbon if the electricity used to run it comes from renewable sources. However, based on the government's current plans, renewables are highly unlikely to supply the majority of the UK's power by the time the first part of the line is open in 2025. In other words, whatever else happens in terms of passengers switching from planes to trains, HS2 will be relatively high carbon and very high energy for decades to come.
In 2007, the Department for Transport commissioned a report - "Estimated Carbon Impact of a New North South Line" - to investigate the likely overall carbon impacts associated with the construction and operation of a new rail line to either Manchester or Scotland including any expected modal transport shifts, and the comparison with the case in which no new high-speed lines were built.(1)
The report concluded that there were no carbon benefits in building a new line from London to Manchester. That's partly because of the number of passengers expected to switch to rail, partly because the National Grid will still be using fossil fuels to generate electricity and partly because of the high carbon cost of building the new line, including tunnels and demolition of buildings.
There might be a significant switch from air to rail and a reduction in carbon emissions if the line ever gets to Scotland, although it's not clear when that would happen. But upgrading the existing lines would almost certainly be lower carbon, not to mention cheaper and quicker to build.
As it stands HS2 is to run from London Euston to the suburbs of Birmingham. But almost nobody flies between London and Birmingham. It's sometimes said that that one should include the prospect of passengers flying to European destinations like Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt switching from planes to trains. So we had a look at the numbers.
In 2010 427,000 passengers made journeys in either direction between Birmingham and Amsterdam.(2) Just over 314,000 flew between Birmingham and Paris. 254,000 flew Paris-Frankfurt. Birmingham-Brussels isn’t in the top 10 ie there are fewer than 100,000 air passengers. Nor is Birmingham-London.
The standard Eurostar train carries 750 people.(3) Assume a loading of 80% and that would imply 854 trains a year between Birmingham and Amsterdam ie two trains a day. But the current journey time from London to Amsterdam, including the new high speed upgrade between Brussels and Amsterdam, is 4 hrs 16 mins.(4) That includes a change in Brussels. So, even without a change in London, Amsterdam-Birmingham would be at least 5 hours. Almost nobody is going to change from planes for that.
The same applies to Birmingham-Frankfurt. It’s currently nearly four hours from Paris to Frankfurt.(5) Even if trains didn’t stop in Paris it would take more than five hours to go from Birmingham to Frankfurt and much, much more if you have to change in the French capital.
But what we found really interesting was that 288,000 people flew between Birmingham and Edinburgh in 2010 and nearly 213,000 people flew between Birmingham and Glasgow. So improving links from Birmingham to Scotland would make more sense if we want to shift people out of planes.
So what about a new approach? Yes to high speed rail but let’s start with the real problem which is Birmingham to Scotland.