HS2: the case against from a commuter’s perspective

STOP HS2 - the campaign against high speed rail

Want to know what’s wrong with the plans for HS2? Just look to France.

That’s the view of Deanne DuKhan (pictured below), Director of AGAHST (Action Groups Against High Speed Two), established in 2010 in response to government plans for the new high speed rail link to connect London with Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.

Seeking to understand why dozens of groups have emerged in opposition to the ambitious project, we asked for her views on what HS2 might mean for commuters.

Deanne’s objections to High Speed Rail Two are borne out of personal experience.

“I’m opposed to HS2 as a life-long commuter,” she says, her words revealing an American accent.
Deanne DuKhan - Director at AGAHST
“I’m from Connecticut,” she explains, “but I’ve lived near and commuted into four of the world’s biggest international commuting cities: Los Angeles, New York, Paris and London.

“In each one the story has been the same: everything’s far too congested; things don’t work properly; trains are overcrowded.

“The money just isn’t there and it’s hard for someone to stand up and take the painful decision that £50billion+ needs spending to solve these problems.”

If under-investment is the problem, why are she and others opposed to spending almost exactly that amount on rail infrastructure like HS2?

“The problem is that HS2 is a long-distance service; any commuter will tell you that long-distance services are not where the problem lies.

“If I’m on a crowded train, it’s not because of people who are travelling from far away or heading to or from the North.

“It’s because of other people trying to get on at Chiswick, Watford and so on: the issues arise from congestion and overcrowding on shorter routes – commuter journeys – HS2 does nothing to address that.”

Deanne insists it’s a question of money, too.

“We’re being told that it won’t impact on the budget to improve commuter journeys,” she says, adding: “but that’s ludicrous.”

It’s here that her experience of Parisien working life informs her views.

“If London commuters want to understand why they should oppose HS2 – and oppose it big time – they should go to Paris and try to commute from a suburb into the city centre.

“The French experience shows that when you sign up to high speed rail it’s a very, very big negative to the rest of the network because it drains away all the funding that is so desperately needed for commuting services. That’s exactly what’s happened in Paris.”

Deanne explains that from the time the French government signed up to TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse – their equivalent of high speed rail), the services connecting central Paris to les banlieues became a disaster.

“The services are so bad it’s not just that there are delays and unbelievable overcrowding, but worse than that, they have stations that are in an appalling condition – it’s ugly stuff,” she says.

Deanne’s focus on the financial downsides are one of the chief objection points for the anti-campaign as a whole here in the UK.

“What we saw on the day of the Spending Review was incredible: literally an hour before parliament voted in favour of HS2 there was an announcement that the budget for the project had gone up by £9.9bn – and nobody seemed to blink an eye!”

Indeed, on 26 June Patrick McLoughlin, the secretary of state for transport, revised the estimated cost of the project up from £32.7 billion to £42.6 billion—or £50 billion if the price of rolling stock is included.

“They just happily went on to vote to give HS2 a blank cheque. The amount they have released in funding is unspecified.”

Yet the latest increase in budget appears to have helped strengthen the anti-campaign.

“Public opinion is opposed to spending money on this project; after the latest vote there was an outcry.

“We’ve been saying for a long time that the idea that the budget would be £32bn is ridiculous – it’s going to be far closer to £100bn and the government’s been accusing us of scaremongering, but now it’s turning out that that’s exactly what’s happening.”

(Since our interview with Deanne, even Boris Johnson has confirmed this suspicion, weighing in to the argument suggesting that the project is likely to hit “£70 billion or more”.)

“My main concern,” she continues, “is that I do not see a way that this could not drain the transport budget, and pull funds away from more localised, short-distance, commuter based services.”

Especially jarring for Deanne is the fact that the increase in spending comes at a time when cutbacks are being made across most other sectors.

“We have to recognise that these decisions are being made in a time of austerity; every penny is precious in terms of public money.

“Yet still they [the government] want to spend billions on this particular project.”

There’s also the question of demand.

“We don’t see where the demand is coming from to make HS2 viable – these routes are already well serviced.”

“The proposition they give is that leisure travellers will use this service and spend more to save 20-30minutes – I just don’t buy that premise.”

“At the end of the day you’ll have a premium, low demand, long-distance service taking away funding from some critical short-distance commuter services.”


A case of David and Goliath?

If the arguments above provide the essence of the anti-campaign’s argument, who exactly is in this ‘no’ camp?

A casual internet trawl of ‘No to HS2’ reveals dozens of groups that object to the project.

“AGAHST is the federation of about 90 community-based action groups up and down the route,” Deanne clarifies, “We’re like an umbrella, working to coordinate the efforts of those other groups.

“We represent the community based action groups, Stop HS2 and HS2Action Alliance.

“There’s other organisations that we work with, but technically aren’t under the umbrella.

“Everyone has different reasons for opposing it but the issue’s profile is highest in communities along the route.

“Initially some thought, ‘Ok, this is in the national interest and hopefully there’ll be good compensation’, and that was that.

“But then people started looking into the detail and said, ‘Hang on: it doesn’t connect to HS1; it’s not going to the city centre in Birmingham’; the ‘hang ons’ kept piling up and before long people came to the conclusion that the whole project just didn’t make sense.

“The campaign became very quickly not about mitigating and compensating those affected by the plans, but rather to stop it – it’s going to be a disaster.”

So why are politicians of all three major parties for it?

Deanne pauses for this one.

“Unfortunately I think there’s a fear: because there’s cross party support none of the three main parties wants to be seen to be the one that gives up on it first – they’re afraid of the political consequences.

“The arguments for HS2 are – in my view – so weak that I just cannot see any other justification.”

Let’s talk strategy

What is the no campaign’s strategy for opposing the plans?

Deanne clarifies how the different groups have different focuses: “Stop HS2 specialises in mobilising the campaign from the grassroots.

“HS2 Action Alliance is the group that does all the research and analysis, and deals with external bodies and experts.

“Then there’s AGAHST: we tend to deal more with the political side of things and policy makers and we’re trying to get the word out as much as possible.

“It’s really difficult though as we’re up against a pretty sophisticated and well-financed PR machine – the pro-camp [the government and HS2 Ltd] have come back at us with some pretty horrible PR campaigns including some really cynical ones.

Did you see that one: “Their lawns, Our jobs” in Manchester with a guy in a bowler hat? Seriously!
Their Lawns Our Jobs
“They’ve called us NIMBYs; they’ve tried to paint the opposition as only being in the Chilterns because the Chilterns are somehow a byword for wealth – it’s nonsense.

“It’s been difficult to get our message heard, but increasingly we keep being validated by respected outside bodies and experts.

“One of the most important experts in the field is Professor John Whitelegg: he’s the transport advisor for the Green Party and he uses the word ‘Baffled’ to describe the project – he just doesn’t understand the logic; a lot of experts are using the term ‘Baffled’ to describe the plans.”

The National Audit Office and The New Economics Foundation agree. The Economist is against the project, too.

How long do they have to fight the campaign?

“The only point of no return is when they get the bulldozers out – and even then you can expect people to continue to fight it.

“We think going into the hybrid bill all the people and groups that oppose this really need to make their voices heard. The bill’s due at the end of this year – that’s crunch time for us.”

What can you do?

If someone wants to register an objection to the plans, what’s the best thing they can do? we ask.

Sign up to our campaign – we’re writing an alternative proposal for how to spend money in the transport budget and we’ll be getting major bodies to sign up to that.

“People think that tweeting their friends or writing to your MP doesn’t make a difference, but all those little acts add up – they make a big difference.

“Let your local policy makers know that you don’t agree with the government spending money in this way.

“And tell the Mayor of London and the London Assembly that commuters will not stand for any compromise in their services in the name of HS2.”

For more information on the Stop HS2 Campaign, visit the Links page of www.betterthanhs2.org.
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Your Views

HS2 seems to provoke strong feelings on both sides of the debate, so what’s your view? Do you think it will affect your commuter service for good or bad? Does Britain need to invest in High Speed Rail? Share your thoughts by commenting below.


  • Del

    The fact is British governments just aren’t good at delivering big projects (ok, Olympics aside)- will this be another issue like ID cards? Spend millions of taxpayers money only to shelve the whole thing years later?

    • http://commutingexpert.com/ Commuting Expert

      Thanks for commenting, Del.

  • Paul Bigland

    This is utter nonsense from AGHAST. Hs2 frees up capacity on existing routes for more local & commuter services by putting the non-stop express trains that eat capacity into Hs2.

    Her scaremongering flies in the face of facts,such as Network Rails billion of pounds investment in the existing network and their plans to invest more between 2014-2019. These a real, unlike her scaremongering.

    I also note that (other than her scaremongering) she has absolutely nothing positive to offer. She has no solutions, alternatives. Commuters would be crazy to listen to her and her friends who only have self-interest in mind.

    • http://commutingexpert.com/ Commuting Expert

      Thank you for sharing your views, Paul. Very interesting to hear your perspective.

      • Hugh Saunders

        What Paul forgets to mention is that he is (or rather was) the photographer for the Campaign for High Speed Rail, the very organisation which produced the NIMBY-bashing bowler-hatted ‘Your lawns’ posters you show above.

    • Andrew Yeomans

      What non-stop express services? All the current trains between London and Birmingham have additional stops at Watford or Milton Keynes, some at Rugby, and at Coventry. None of which are served by HS2.

      • William Barter

        Express services like the Glasgows which are first (or last, depending which way) stop Warrington

  • Paul Bigland

    There are two glaring (and breathtaking) pieces of dishonesty in what she says. Hs2 DOES go to central Birmingham (as anyone who can map read can see). And Hs1 and Hs2 WILL be linked.

  • Neil Turner

    The comment that it ‘might cost £100bn’ is pure guesswork. At the moment it’s budgeted for £40bn which includes some contingency – so it may cost less.

    And the comment about how investment in other lines will be cut is untrue. Look at Crossrail, the Welsh Valleys electrification, the Northern Hub, GOBLIN electrification, phase 2 of the Thameslink Programme – these are all projects that have started or have had their funding confirmed that will directly benefit commuters, and are completely independent of HS2.

    • http://commutingexpert.com/ Commuting Expert

      Thanks for offering these points, Neil – much appreciated.

  • Alex Burrows

    I agree with Paul. I’m afraid the idea that HS2 does not help capacity for commuter trains is utter nonsense. HS2 will allow for many more commuter trains into Euston on the West Coast main line by freeing up many additional paths. It will also allow for more rail freight in addition.

    HS2 does connect to HS1 and it comes into Birmingham City Centre into an extended Moor Street station which is absolutely a city centre station next to the Bullring. I’m afraid these myths illustrate the fundamental disinterest anti-hs2 campaigners have in the situation for those of us in the West Midlands and further north. Birmingham New Street is full – to get more and longer trains in would require a multi-billion pound scheme (making it more expensive than HS2 once you do all the other additional works along the route between London and Birmingham).

    Finally, we have seen the £16bn Crossrail that London is getting and almost certainly another £16+bn for Crossrail 2 looks inevitable. It is breathtaking that the anti-HS2 campaigners cannot see the hypocrisy of being pro-investment in London transport at the expense of the rest of the country.

    • http://commutingexpert.com/ Commuting Expert

      We appreciate your detailed comments, Alex.

      • Hugh Saunders

        What Alex forgets to mention is that he is Head of Transport and Infrastructure at a major public affairs company which is lobbying for HS2.

    • Hugh Saunders

      The paths will be freed by reducing the number of intercity services that run on the existing lines so that, once Manchester is served by three HS2 trains per hour, its ordinary intercity services from London on the West Coast Mainline will be reduced from three to one per hour. This will badly affect stations along the West Coast line between London and Manchester, such as Stoke on Trent, which will see its intercity services reduced but no compensating HS2 service, as HS2 trains won’t stop there.

      • http://commutingexpert.com/ Commuting Expert

        Thanks for your comments, Hugh.

    • William Barter

      There are two commuter trains per hour on the fast lines from Euston, which cross to the Slow lines to serve Leighton Buzzard, Bletchley and Milton Keynes. These trains are 12 cars long, with 2+3 seating, and despite peak fares run full and standing. There are only two per hour, because there is only capacity to run two per hour.

      On the slow lines there is some scope to lengthen more trains to 12 cars, but as some platforms at Euston can only take 8 cars, there will always be some 8 car trains until the station is rebuilt (as will be done for HS2).

      Meanwhile, Milton Keynes commuters have to watch Virgin trains flying through their station, (or worse, stopping to set down only in the morning and to pick up only in the evening) because the long distance traffic takes priority and there isn’t the capacity for more trains to stop. (Incidentally, these long distance passengers from MK to and from the North mean that the heaviest train loads on Virgin are North of MK, not on leaving Euston which is all that HS2AA counted)

      What will happen after HS2 is that there may not be so many long-distance trains on the WCML, but all of them will be able to stop at MK and more than now at other places such as Watford and Rugby. This will also serve the non-London commuters better, such as MK – Birmingham or Coventry – MK.

  • RWH

    I am lucky, my commuter line is a good one and not over crowded but if I was on one of the many running near or over capacity I would be wondering why a single line that will start running in 15 years is the answer to my problems.

    But it is always hard for politicians who lack any ideas on how to solve the economic split between the North and South of Britain to resist a one hit solution – even one with a £50 billion (and rising) price tag.

    Anyone who spend a few minutes running through the detail sees that the case for it has been fabricated in many areas.

    It is a business man’s train but more than 60% of forecast passengers will be tourists. Will they be travelling North or to London you may ask? It will not charge a premium for tickets? Will HS2 be competing with Chiltern Railway’s advance offers of £6 to Birmingham?

    Public opinion is turning against this white elephant but the vested interests with billions in revenues nearly in their hands are not surprisingly reluctant to let them go.
    Political support is softening and it seems that apart from a PM without a growth strategy for the economy is clinging on to the hope that HS2 will buy him vote in the Midlands and the North.

    Capacity issues can be dealt with by alternatives that have been planned and costed and reviewed by independent bodies. But they are not sexy and don’t cost close to the £50 for HS2. Less money for the rail industry in UK and Europe and no votes won so they are ignored.

    Finally, 300k homes are already blighted by this line and compensation is available for less than 1% of them. If the Government really believed that HS2 would generate huge economic benefits it would be compensating all of those blighted by the plans for 100% of losses plus costs. But no, they are left with plans on hold and homes they can not sell.

    • http://commutingexpert.com/ Commuting Expert

      Thanks for these comments – another interesting set of ideas.

  • rae

    Hs2 addresses intercity transport not commuter transport. Even the DfT have admitted WCML is only running at 50-60% at peak times. The question is where will the money come from? The DfT have also admitted there will be cuts on other services. where will the cuts be? Some they have confessed will be on the Midland Mainline. Commuter services are a captive revenue hence they get away with huge fare rises and whose services are affected when there are any problems. The government propaganda around HS2 is pure spin and rhetoric. They are trying to get buy in at the expense of the taxpayer and what an expense. They have confessed up by nearly a third and still no trains and no inflation. It’s based on 2011 prices.

  • ShirleyJ

    Deanne is right, HS2 is a complete waste of money that doesn’t begin to address the real problems on our railways. On the West Coast Main Line, according to the Dept for tramsport’s own figures, on average long-distance trains leaving Euston are only 53% full. There is over-crowding on the commuter lines but the way to solve that is by carrying out grade separation work at Ledburn Junction which would double community capacity to Milton Keynes and Northampton at peak times. It could be done in 5 years – ie could be done before 2020 – at a fraction of the cost of HS2. Network Rail has already made the plans and it should be a no-brainer so why isn’t it happening? Because it would undermine the case for HS2.

    But Euston isn’t the busiest commuter destination in London – the 10 most over-crowded trains go into Paddington so there is a real need to spend money improving commuter routes in from the west.

    And what about the rest of the country? Services in the South-West, eg between Bristol and Southampton, are appalling as is commuting in the North-West. Rather than squandering cash on a project for which even the Government admits there is no business case – instead claiming its about capacity in the teeth of the evidence from their own department – money should be spent addressing specific problems on specific parts of the network. That would be quicker, cheaper and benefit far more people. And some of the large amount of money saved could go on upgrading the broadband network to world-class standards (ie better than the 24mbps rate currently being rolled out, behind schedule) so that it’s easier for people to work from home.

    • http://commutingexpert.com/ Commuting Expert

      Many thanks for providing these arguments, Shirley.

    • William Barter


      of all, the Great Western lines are getting electrification with longer trains
      anyway. So saying “why not deal with them first?” is no argument; we
      are dealing with them now, work has already started.

      the 2014 timetable already proposes to use 110 mph operation of the fast
      commuter trains to allow two trains to run in the gap between Virgin trains
      where only one can run at 100 mph. So that means, thank heavens, two extra
      commuter trains per hour next year, without the Ledburn flyover, which adds
      nothing more. I expect you’ll say “fine, problem solved then” but it
      isn’t. Those trains will be running because they are needed now as anyone who
      catches the LM trains from Euston will know only too well, and as the
      population continues to grow with extensive new housing planned for Leighton
      Buzzard, Milton Keynes and South Northants, so the demand for London commuting
      will keep growing.

      Without HS2, there is just no further scope for adding commuter capacity beyond
      2014, let alone for serving the intermediate flows that are catered for so
      badly at present, such as Milton Keynes to Birmingham and Coventry to Milton