HS2, don’t scare the faster horses

Henry Ford said that if he had listened to what the public wanted he would have made faster horses. This is exactly the thinking that has gone into the Government’s decision to invest £32bn in the folly that is HS2, the fast train line from London to Manchester and Leeds via Birmingham.


I could go into the arguments against HS2, the environmental ones are compelling in many respects. I actually think the biggest negative is that it will suck enterprise and economic activity further away from the north and into the south-east of the country. HS2 is presented as allowing fast access to the Midlands and North of England. Anyone who travels regularly by train knows that the reality is that morning trains to and from London are full to bursting with people travelling from north to south, and evening trains take the same people back north. Northbound trains in the morning and southbound trains in the evening are relatively empty. HS2 will exacerbate this process, making it easier for northern people to do business in London, not in their home locations.

HS2 is old thinking because it is based on the assumption that everyone needs to travel for business and they want to do it faster. The reality of life is that the internet is allowing us to find new ways of not travelling, and we should be investing in furthering these processes for the sake of the environment and our quality of lives.


HS2 is also flawed thinking because it assumes that travelling time is unproductive time. Indeed the economic justification for it only begins to stack up because its advocates discount all time spent in a train as economically wasted. Again, this ignores a reality of modern life that many people work while on trains. People still wedded to their cars miss the point entirely that working on the move is possible. Working on trains is not ideal, but this is an area where investment, if it is available, should be going. So, a key part of the alternative to HS2 is to make our existing train network a more amenable place to work. Invest the money into more carriages, new kinds of trains, and, crucially, force collaboration between train companies to make new routes, interchanges, and ticketing systems possible (renationalisation anyone? Maybe not).

Trains can be mobile workplaces. They already are for many. I think we should have “mobile office carriages”, with proper workstations, powerpoints, watercoolers, and working wifi that doesn’t keep dropping out. And, no, train companies, I don’t want you to charge extra for these services, rather, see them as a tool for attracting people out of their cars and into your carriages. We need more co-working-type spaces in railway stations too, to make interchanging between services an easier process that is less disruptive to the passengers’ workflow.

Wakefield Westgate Station

If we treat journeys as part of our working day, where the ability to work effectively is more important than getting there faster, we will achieve the transformation of the railways into a support infrastructure for 21st Century life. HS2 is just faster horses.

8 thoughts on “HS2, don’t scare the faster horses

  1. Good post, John. I’m no engineer, but it seems a lot over a long period for limited benefit (apart from welcome construction jobs). I hadn’t thought about the North->South commuter flow – I tend to do the journey at odd times, and infrequently – but I’m sure you’ve got a point. For me, capacity, not speed, is more of an issue – trains are often very crowded. Some funds pitched towards longer trains and platforms would help with that. Perhaps some targeted works to create more ‘passing places’ might help

    I agree abut working on trains. When there’s good wifi I find I can work be productive, turning ‘dead time’ in to something useful. That’s a wonderful idea about co-working spaces on trains. Decent, reliable and FREE would be fabulous. I’d add TWO power points each to my wish list.

  2. Agree John, and instead of having a faster horse for a few (which will be very expensive to ride and feed) we could each have a telepresence and be at meetings instantly with a decent internet connection saving the need for many journeys.

  3. Could’t agree more.
    After a huge “investment (= avoidable expence for every tax-payer) total journey times from home to office and visa versa will not significantly change.
    Reliable Wi-Fi, proper working space and better facilities such as faxes, scanners, printers and sockets plus longer trains and platforms, more passing places and better inter-city & town connections would improve matters far more than the money due to be wasted on HS2.

  4. “…the reality is that morning trains to and from London are full to bursting with people travelling from north to south, and evening trains take the same people back north…” – that’s a good thing for the North. I make money from London and export it back here, where I spend it. If it takes me an hour to get to London then it makes it easier for me to go and get that cash – if I can’t go to get it then it stays in London.

    The journey *is* part of my working day, but I balance that working day against my life. Yes, I can work during the journey, but it is the duration of the journey that affects me, not what I do during it. At the moment there are days when I wake up at 5am and miss my kids in the morning so that I can make a 9am meeting and compete for the London money. I can’t compete for that cash by saying “please work round me and arrange the meeting between 11am and 3pm so I get some quality family life”.

    Give me HS2 so I can see my kids, get to London quickly and easily, and spend the money I earn there in the community in which I live.

  5. Great blog, John. i find that the time I spend on the train is productive time, and having been forced to stop relying on my car I wouldn’t go back to it.

    I have one suggesstion for improving my experience of train travel. Improving the quality of the rolling stock so that I have access to all trains on my mobility scooter would be great. Because currently, no matter how great the track, I can’t access trains run by many services.

    And before you ask, you might be surprised to learn they’re not legally liable, under the Equalities Act 2005, nor the DDA, 1995, to replace them with accessible rolling stock. Believe me, I did check it out when it first happened.

    In comparison to this, when trying to compete for work in London, whether a train gets me there half an hour quicker or not seems immaterial.

  6. while id love the trains to be better WRT wifi etc I think that HS2 is absolutely essential to support the reality of doing business in an increasingly globalised economy, it cant come soon enough. I think you are totally missing the point. London is “one of the big 4” global centres of enterprise, UK PLC’s greatest asset, HS2 means that northern businesses can access global HQ’ed clients and effectively explore the global market. No amount of technology can ever replace the benefits gained from face to face meetings with clients (and Im saying this from the position of running a digital agency).. if Leeds is to stand ANY chance of thriving in the economy of the future, this is essential, my only worry is whether it comes soon enough.. The UK rail infrastructure is very old now, we NEED to invest in it.. just look at how much Europe, China, Japan invest in theirs.. wake up people UK PLC needs to invest in its future infrastructure digital and physical!

  7. I once had the joy of the 06:55 Virgin Train from London to Manchester a few years ago. Believe me, that was no empty train. It was absolutely heaving – barely a free seat anywhere in standard class. For about a year I did London to Manchester journeys, once every few months, returning on the same day. Never that early but generally they were pretty busy in the morning and evening. As for working on the train? Unergonimic, uncomfortable, unreliable. Oh and get me on a Pendalino working and I feel travel sick. I do not work on trains. Modern work laptop and a modern train? No way is that comfortable.

    But that’s a side point because I geniunely think this stuff about working from home more is just a pipe dream. There’s no evidence that it will happen or that companies want it to happen. We have been talking about it for years and guess what, nothing much has changed. I can work from home – and I do so roughly once a week – but in many tasks I’m far more productive in the office. It’s the ability to do quick adhoc meetings – to walk to someone to ask them a question when it’s a lot harder to track them down by email or phone. To have group huddles. For the teams I work with to come over and ask me questions. We have all these ways for people to communicate but nine times out of ten people prefer to do it by talking face to face.

    The industry I work in is no old fashioned industry. I work in computers; future media – I’m at the cutting edge of this stuff. I do regular telephone calls with people. We have HD video conferencing. We have email. We have messenger. We have all this stuff. And face to face is the preference for almost everybody. It’s certainly more productive to have everyone in a meeting room than battling with telephone conferencing systems.

    Then there’s the people trying to get business. You want to talk to a client, what are you going to do? If you want to get someone’s business are you going to get it if you just do it over Skype, or are they going to choose the person who has come and visited?

    Unlike (it seems) most people I have absolutely zero confidence that any of this will have changed massively in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years. Because, even working at the cutting edge for fifteen years, it simply hasn’t changed at all.

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