We're running out of reasons to back HS2. Credit: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images

August 12, 2019   4 mins

When the HS2 project got its start in 2009, its vital statistics were measured in miles per hour. If we’re going to build new rail links from south to north, the argument went, then they might as well be high speed rail links. A train travelling at 225 mph? How thrillingly modern!

Of late, however, HS2’s headline stats aren’t in miles per hour, but billions of pounds. An initial price tag of £32 billion for the whole project ballooned into an official budget of £56 billion – with the BBC now reporting that a further £30 billion might be needed on top of that. Pessimists fear the final cost could break the £100 billion barrier.

Will Boris Johnson have the guts to pull the plug? Early indications suggest that he might have given way to the usual umming-and-ahhing. But with anything approaching a twelve figure number, you have to ask what we could have had instead.

For instance, how about a hyperloop? 

A hyperloop is a maglev train that floats inside a tube-enclosed track from which most of the air is sucked out. By drastically reducing air resistance the train is able to achieve extraordinary speeds – something like 700 mph, three times the speed of ‘high speed’ rail.

Does it work in practice though? Elon Musk (who else?) has been developing the technology, and encouraging other companies to get involved with their own ventures. One of these companies is Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, which appears to be on the brink of building the first commercial hyperloop project in the United Arab Emirates.

According to a Gulf News report by Cleofe Maceda, the initial work is already underway:

“The chairman of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (Hyperloop TT), Bibop Gresta, revealed to state news agency WAM that the hyperloop capsule that will be set up in Abu Dhabi has already left the assembly plant in Spain to the southwestern region in France.

“Gresta said the capsule will be assembled, tested and optimised in the French city of Toulouse before it will be transported to the UAE.”

If that goes well the plan is to build a 150km track all the way to Dubai – with an envisaged journey time of 12 minutes.

And the cost of such an endeavour? Well, the proof is in the construction – but this is what the company is saying:

“Gresta said the cost of the project is estimated to be around $20 million… to $40 million… per kilometre…

“However, Gresta said any money put into the mega project can be recouped in eight to 15 years.”

Let’s take the upper bound of that estimate ($40 million per kilometre) and apply it to the combined track length of phases 1 and 2 of HS2 – 532 km. That comes to $21.3 billion.

Yes, yes – I know: I’m making a back-of-a-fag-packet calculation. We’d need a whole lot of other information for a robust comparison between HS2 and the hyperloop costings: Does the latter include the cost of new stations? What are the comparative capacities of the two systems? What about the environmental impacts?

Then there’s the fact that while high speed rail is a tried-and-tested technology, the Abu Dhabi to Dubai hyperloop would be the first commercial link of its kind anywhere in the world.

But to my mind that’s the biggest argument against HS2: for the sort of money being committed, one would expect something a bit more advanced than some increasingly standard infrastructure. The Chinese high speed rail network, for instance, is already 29,000 km in length and expected to reach 38,000 km by 2025.

Assuming no delays to the current schedule, the first phase of HS2 will be finished by 2026 – at which point it will be possible to travel from London to Birmingham half-an-hour faster than is presently the case. Wow! If we’d known the 21st century would so exciting! HG Wells didn’t see that one coming, did he?

The UK is making a habit of spending huge amounts of money on underwhelming technology. As well as HS2, there’s ‘HPC’ – Hinkley Point C, a new nuclear power station. We’ve committed tens of billions of pounds to the purchase of overpriced electricity from an already out-of-date French reactor design, with a track record of delays and cost overruns. And we’ll still be paying for it in 2060!

The third of the horrible H’s is Heathrow expansion. No one knows how much this one will end up costing as they’re still working out the infrastructural and environmental implications of expanding a hub airport that was built in the wrong place to begin with. Even if the wider project (including supporting infrastructure) requires no public subsidy – we’re talking about vast sums of private investment that could be more productively (and sustainably) put to use elsewhere. But rather than properly explore options fit for the 21st century, the government decision was to double-down on the biggest planning mistake of the post-war era.

I’m not necessarily against grands projets. Sometimes a country has to gather up all its might and do something that only a great and united nation can achieve. But when we do, it’s got to produce something special – a confident leap into a better future, a wonder of the modern world.

Whether the hyperloop ventures in the Emirates and elsewhere succeed remains to be seen. But on the criterion I set out above – that of wondrousness – we can be sure that HS2, Hinkley Point C and Heathrow expansion will not – despite the colossal combined cost.

As a nation we are paying moonshot prices for mundane results.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.