HS2- can the technology meet expectations?

The development of the UK’s high-speed rail has been a subject of debate amongst those who believe the system will make significant impact and those who think it’s not a viable enough solution to merit the investment and possible environmental consequences.

Dr. Chia-Lin Chen, Research Associate in Transport and Development at The Bartlett School of Planning, University College London, speaks to Your Ready Business about how the high-speed transport system will have an effect on UK cities.

I worked as a civil servant in the planning department of a Taiwanese local government from 2003-2006, when we were developing high-speed rail (HSR) systems and my research focus was initially around how HSR can trigger development around stations. With my advisor, the late Professor Sir Peter Hall’s encouragement and guidance, I expanded my areas of research and started to look at how HSR can help development on a wider city and regional scale, especially in cities whose economic structure has transformed from manufacturing to a post-industrial economy.

ICT solutions such as video and teleconferencing solutions have become an integral way to conduct business, but as we can see from the increasing demand for passenger journey, travel is still very important. Developing efficient transport links is important for economic growth, but of course HS2 is not the only solution to support this.

I was interested in studying how HSR impacts development from an empirical perspective and tried to look at whether, to what extent and how HSR reduced or widened regional inequality. By so doing, lessons can be gained regarding how HSR could be developed to maximise its wider impacts through a development process. My approach was to collect quantitative secondary data from the national statistical office to measure the difference ‘before and after’ of the arrival of HSR services. This data would look at where people live and work, economic structure and growth, income, at different spatial scales and then interpret it based on the hypothesis generated from theories. Then, qualitative approaches such as in-depth interview and policy analysis could be used to explain the pattern of impact.

Is a high-speed rail system the best option to improve connections?

The UK’s railway system is the oldest in the world and was established about 180 years ago. It is a mixed usage system, which means the track needs to serve three major purposes; long haul intercity journeys, short haul commuting journeys and freight. Intercity connections are very important, which is one reason the government chose to prioritise the service, but that squeezed the capacity around larger cities like London and Manchester.

There is a lot of debate around HSR, its detractors claiming that we don’t need to reduce the travel time from London to Manchester by an additional 40 minutes. The real issue though is how can we use the old tracks to serve three functions and carry on like this for another 50 years?

For medium-to-long distance travel, HSR, linking city centres with city centres, is very competitive compared to air travel, which involves airports far away like Luton or Stanstead. But these cities served directly by HSR are mainly large ones. HSR cannot practically serve small centres, but at least it should get you near to the major centre of smaller cities and brings the possibility of development to a wider territory beyond the HSR station area. The next issue is to develop ways to connect those small towns within each region better.

What “connectivity” means for businesses

As part of my research I studied how upgraded HSR (InterCity 125/225) can help transform economic structures from 1970’s-2001, from post-industrial to knowledge economy. I was trying to measure what has changed economically and found that most of the cities have moved from manufacturing to various public and private services. It is clear that HSR cities have transformed more into knowledge economies – including business and financial services, cultural services, R&D, consultancies – than non-HSR cities.

In developing a knowledge economy, knowledge intensive activities agglomerate in large city cores for creativity, productivity, and cooperation, but routine activities tend to be less confined to urban compactness and therefore decentralise from centres. The arrival of HSR enabled business operation.

Within two hours from London, larger regional cities such as Leeds and Bristol did not suffer from being connected to London quicker because it was not necessary for many businesses to relocate to London. This means that they don’t lose out, but in fact benefit from it.

Smaller cities within 1 hour from London, like Peterborough for instance, also have become more economically and residentially attractive although did not necessarily become a major hub on their own.

Places like Newport and Doncaster on the other hand were not benefiting from HSR; it is probable that as post-industrial cities, they weren’t ready to benefit from it without other interventions in operation. So the conclusion must be that HSR won’t guarantee the success of a city, but it can give them an opportunity to play a certain economic function for the country or region.

What this means for the North/South divide

There are nine main regions in the UK, with London being the most autonomous. The North /South divide is real (inter-regional inequality), but it is only part of the problem. There are also divisions within the regions themselves which we call intra-regional inequality which has yet to be addressed.

That is because all the political power is centred around London. Take the North West as an example, it is a region that has no real power, but is a statistical region. In addition, the UK rail system is run by routes, not by region, and is very fragmented. There is no particular responsibility taken for each region’s development.

George Osborne was mentioning HS3 recently. The idea is to connect the North together, whilst HS2 connects the South to the North. If HS3 does get developed this means northern core cities from Liverpool to Newcastle can grow together economically. However this still isn’t enough to bridge the gap between the north and south because the wider regions are still not connected.

How this affects the overall economy

Of course there are benefits from the construction aspect of building HS2, but this is a short-term benefit to the national GDP. Domestic tourism would be enhanced as HSR would cut down travel time so it could even trigger tourists to travel to try new places they hadn’t considered visiting.

The UK should use their heritage as the first country with a railway system to create their own system and export it to other countries in Europe or Asia that don’t have a HSR system instead of just buying the technology from other countries. A research centre like the HS2 Academy would enable developing the technology here. You can see from Japan, Korea, France and China how HSR technology can be a national asset and source of national pride. France sold their system to South Korea. South Korea then took that system, developed it and then sold the technology to Ukraine. When Ukraine hosted the UEFA European Championship in 2012, the HSR technology they bought from Korea helped make it possible to transport people to the event.

I’m not sure what the government will do, but personally I believe HS2 is a great opportunity to help the economy but the effect is not automatic. Although all the benefits won’t be visible until 2026 or 2032, there is still time for all strategic interventions locally and nationally to maximise the expected potential and outcome.