High Speed 2 (HS2) is the new railway line currently under construction that should run from London to Birmingham and then on to Leeds (via the East Midlands and Sheffield) and Manchester, with connections to the classic network so trains can run beyond there. Always controversial, a significant amount of media coverage in recent months has meant that public opinion has very much turned against the rail project. In part 1, I explored the case for HS2: the problems that it addresses and the bonuses that it brings. Part 2 looks at the failures of public relations (PR) from the government, the misinformation and outright lies told by the media, and what damage such deception will likely do.
The PR Failures
HS2 has always been about speeding up journey times in the public eye. This is simply wrong. As I stated in the previous part, HS2 is about creating more capacity to run more services. The higher top speed is a product of HS2 being for InterCity services, so it might as well be quicker. All railway professionals know it is about shifting the InterCity services onto a new railway line so that there is more space on the “classic” railways for local and regional services.
The London/South Focus:
It is true that phase 1 of HS2 (London to Birmingham) doesn't touch the north. However, phase 2 (Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds) does, and also creates additional capacity so that other places in the north can get more frequent services. Viewing HS2 as purely solving problems for Southerners is simply incorrect, however the benefits of HS2 to the North is simply not covered. Some arguments state that it should start in the North and work south. I can see why this makes sense, but, of all the sections of congested railway that will be most relieved by HS2, the Southern WCML is literally at capacity, so I can also see the downsides of not sorting that problem out first.
The Failure of the Media
I can't go into all of these in detail, because there are so many of them. It will not come as a surprise to frequent readers of this blog that, like with so many other aspects of the railways, the coverage of journalists on HS2 is poor at best. Some articles are seriously misleading, whilst others contain downright misinformation.
For example, LBC released an article in February 2019 which said that the “HS2 Journey From Manchester To Glasgow Will Be SLOWER Than It Is Now”. Liam Halligan explained that the new HS2 rolling stock can't tilt, but the existing rolling stock (Pendolinos) can. Therefore, journey times would increase. This isn't misleading, but a downright lie.
Firstly, in February 2019, we didn't know what the HS2 rolling stock was going to be. We still don't. The shortlist for the rolling stock was released today (5th June 2019) and, as far as I can find out, the information on whether or not this rolling stock can tilt is not yet available.
Secondly, the Pendolino train doesn't run from Manchester to Glasgow. The trains which run from Manchester to Glasgow at the moment are class 185s or class 350s, neither of which can tilt. So, even if Halligan had been right about the HS2 rolling stock, it would still be utterly irrelevant because the rolling stock that is in operation now can't tilt. That makes Halligan either a poor journalist or a liar, neither of which are good.
This interview with Halligan was as a response to his Channel 4 Dispatches programme, which was so riddled with errors that I can't cover it in full here. However, Paul Bigland managed to do so, and I recommend you read his appraisal in full here: https://paulbigland.blog/2019/02/12/channel-4-dispatches-on-hs2-a-poor-hatchet-job-not-an-investigation/ .
The outright dishonesty of Liam Halligan is then spread by other media outlets who try to defend themselves because “they are only reporting on the story”, but without fact checking. It would have taken 1 minute to find out what trains are currently in use between Manchester and Glasgow and to see that Halligan was incorrect, but this never happened. The lack of fact-checking anti-HS2 stories is a significant problem.
Other critiques come from the cost of HS2 and attempt to point out that this cost could be spent on other railway projects. The most prize for the most ridiculous one must go to (surprise, surprise) The Daily Mail and The Taxpayers Alliance who said that the money for HS2 could be spent on 28 road and rail projects. Some of the costing is mad, and most of it doesn't solve the problems, or spends money on solving one of the things HS2 solves. For example, the price tag put on the Brighton Main Line 2 is £500 million. Or, the unspecified upgrade to the Rugby to Birmingham line to allow more passenger and freight capacity. Like HS2 will do. Improvement of the Felixstowe to Nuneaton freight line is already happening; electrification of the Chiltern Main Line won't create anywhere like the additional capacity required (1 or 2 additional trains per hour at most); what is called “Britain's S-Bahn railway” will only exist in Leeds; and the comment “The report presents a false and inferior choice of investing in either HS2 or other transport across the country” is at the bottom of the article despite it being the only true thing said. A combination of a lack of understanding, blind hatred, and manipulation of information produces this farcical story and report.
The Damage of Deception
The constant and often illegitimate criticism without looking at the reasons for HS2 create a situation where HS2 will be watered down and nothing additional will happen. The HS1-HS2 link has already been scrapped because of the prohibitive cost, but what will be next?
The most obvious answer is that phase 2 (Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds) will never be built. This is the phase that directly benefits the north. The current political situation means that no government is likely to pass a bill that allows HS2 phase 2 to be build. IE: the constant complaining by people that it doesn't benefit the north means that it won't benefit the north because the bit that benefits the north will be scrapped due to the complaints that it won't benefit the north.
The second answer is that the current phase will be reduced in scope. The current prediction is to have 18tph, but it is cheaper to build railways which have a lower capacity. One proposal is to reduce it down to 14tph, which is only 2tph higher than the current peak time departures for InterCity services on the WCML. Add in the departures to Scotland and the East Midlands that HS2 will take from other railway lines, that represents a decrease in capacity.
Sadiq Kahn, current Mayor of London, proposed that the railway should terminate at Old Oak Common rather than London Euston. This is also an absurd idea, simply because that would mean a huge number of people would be transferring to alternative modes of transport to get from Old Oak Common to Central London. That will do nothing for capacity on trains in and out of Paddington to commuter towns in the Thames Valley, or the InterCity services to the West Country and Wales.
I don't think that phase 1 will be watered down, but it is certainly a distinct possibility. The scrapping of phase 2 is sadly very likely. And all this will lead to is another example of the UK failing to complete something. Pro-HS2 campaigners and railway professionals will point to the lack of completion as the reason why journeys haven't changed as much as they said they would, and anti-HS2 campaigners will point to the failure of HS2 to be as good as expected and use it whenever any other major infrastructure project comes up.
I should also point out that I don't think phase 1 (London to Birmingham) will be scrapped outright, mainly because of the amount of money that has already been spent on it.
The combination of a failure of PR, misrepresentation and outright lies have meant that the ordinary member of the public views HS2 as something with no positives, and many negatives. This most likely means that no additional parts of HS2 (other than the first phase) will be built, and even that could be watered down. This will significantly reduce the benefits of building HS2 in the first place meaning that the unfounded criticism of HS2 will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.