An HS2 construction site at London Euston railway station in London. Hollie Adams/Bloomberg

Faster north-south train service around London could decrease reliance on cars and planes. But northerners say their more dire transportation needs are being neglected.

While the speed and frequency of Britain’s railways might be the envy of many North Americans, the U.K. still has some way to go before it catches up with the seamless high-speed train services of its continental European neighbors. Following an announcement Tuesday, however, that’s set to change. A controversial high-speed rail project was green-lighted by the U.K. government this week that would connect Britain’s four largest metros.

With the line’s first stage to Birmingham approved in 2017—then put on hold by the government last summer—the high-speed initiative already has a long history of controversy behind it, and has faced accusations of excessive cost and prioritizing Londoners’ needs over those of northerners. But if the project is executed right, it could nudge people away from not just the highways, but also some popular domestic flight routes.

The 330 miles of new high-speed railway, referred to as HS2 and championed yesterday by Prime Minister Johnson, would connect London with Birmingham and then go onwards in two branches to the northern cities of Manchester and Leeds, on trains capable of speeds of up to 250 miles per hour. While the use of the fastest tracks all the way has not yet been fully confirmed, high-speed rail could revolutionize north-south travel in England, shaving an hour off the journey time between London and Manchester and tripling the current capacity of trains along the route.

(Marie Patino)

HS2 would only be Britain’s second high-speed link, after the Eurostar service from London to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. Criticism of the project stretches back more than a decade.

There are several grounds for protesting the line. In a country where the capital tends to get the lion’s share of resources, many northerners have wondered why a super-fast link to London was approved before a project to improve east-west rail service between cities in Northern England, a region they believe is in more urgent need of rail improvement. Environmental protesters have also fought plans to carve the high-speed track through protected woodlands and vulnerable habitats (while nonetheless rerouting slightly to avoid a golf course). On top of this, many people have seen the ballooning budget and started to worry that the new link is little more than a state-subsidized gravy train.

There are strong arguments, nonetheless, that HS2 will deliver benefits, both to the environment and to travelers who don’t have London as their final destination. By moving long-distance north-south traffic onto the new high-speed link, the project will free up space to increase train frequency on other parts of the network, which are currently working (and just about managing) at close to capacity. And while tree-planting exercises cannot fully make up for the loss of ancient trees, the link could help to deliver massive carbon savings for the U.K.

That’s because increasing train speeds and capacity could slash road traffic and trim some air traffic, too. Train travel will become a more attractive option when the London-to-Manchester journey time almost halves, from 2 hours 8 minutes to 1 hour 8 minutes. With onward journeys on existing non-high-speed tracks to Northeast England and Scotland also shortening, train journeys from London to Edinburgh and Glasgow would also drop markedly (to three hours, 38 minutes each) if the track is built to its fullest proposed extent, encouraging more travelers onto the rails and away from what are currently popular flight routes. Some estimates suggest that HS2 could help the U.K. cut back as much as 600,000 tons of carbon emissions over the next 60 years.

That savings, however, could be offset by other policy decisions. Already, there are suggestions that Prime Minister Johnson may be pushing HS2 as a means to expand Birmingham Airport as a terminal for London, a plan that would allow him to avoid an expansion of Heathrow Airport unpopular with the Conservative Party’s base in the London exurbs. That expansion might well cut into any carbon savings, but for now, the U.K.’s transit network looks set to become notably faster, slicker and cleaner.

It won’t do so in a hurry, however, and financial obstacles remain. High-speed services will, at the last estimate, start to run between London and Birmingham any time between 2028 and 2031, while services to Manchester and Leeds may not begin until as late as 2040. The cost of completion, meanwhile, could be astronomical. Government documents leaked recently suggest the budget could rise as high as 106 billion pounds ($137 billion), a huge jump from the initial 2011 estimate of 32.7 billion pounds, even if you take inflation into account. Aware of the difficulties of securing support for this kind of sum, the government is already suggesting that trains might in fact run a little slower after Birmingham, a choice that could cut costs but inflame fears that the north is still getting a raw deal.

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