This is a cross-post by Tom Bolton of the Centre for Cities and UCL. Tom was a participant in the ITC’s ‘Learning from Europe’ symposium in February 2014.
Looking to the continent provides a very different perspective on the HS2 debate.
Organised by the Independent Transport Commission, a study tour to France and the Netherlands provided very important lessons for those tasked with delivering High Speed 2. The participants included HS2 Ltd managers, senior Department for Transport civil servants, local authority officers from London, Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham and Sheffield, rail consultants, engineers, lawyers, architects, planners and academics. Visits to Lille, Paris, Rotterdam and Utrecht provided very different perspectives on the UK’s HS2 debate:
- Both France and the Netherlands have high speed networks, not just high speed lines. The first of its seven high speed lines was built in 1981, and three more are on the way. This long-term planning, beyond political cycles, has allowed the creation of a national network in a relatively short time. The UK’s high speed plans have, to date, been politically driven one-offs and a long-term plan for the whole country is surely needed.
- High speed rail in France and in the Netherlands is about more than capacity: it is an integral part of regional economic strategy. For example, Paris and the Ile de France region aim to move from a mono-centric city towards a radial model, with employment centres in outer areas. This will require much better orbital links through outer Paris to enable business and residential growth. High speed rail has provided the means to connect up the city region, bypassing as well as connecting the capital, and linking with Metro and RER networks. In the UK HS2 and regional economic planning are much less integrated.
- Despite our perceptions that other countries are NIMBY-free, French high speed rail faced significant public opposition, particularly from those living on the route. Objections were overcome by building long, expensive tunnels under open country as well as residential areas. Despite the budgetary implications, simply tunnelling under NIMBY suburbs has recently been suggested by Peter Hall as a solution for the UK.
- High speed is no quick fix. In Lille, held up as an example of a city transformed by its Eurostar connection, it has taken time to realise the benefits. It was fifteen years before large businesses began to relocate to Lille and the project’s director, now in charge of bringing high speed to Bordeaux, expects a similar lag there. In Rotterdam the anticipated economic benefits from high speed rail have yet to materialise, and it may in fact be too close to Amsterdam attract business relocations.
- High speed on its own is not enough. For example at Massy, on the southern outskirts of Paris, a station opened in the early 1990s but development of a new town did not take off until links to RER and Metro lines to Paris and national SNCF rail services created a major interchange. With more Metro lines promised Massy finally has momentum on its side, with Carrefour building new headquarters that will create 4,200 jobs.
- Local connections matter. In the Netherlands, the proximity of cities means urban economies depend on their connections to Amsterdam, both via high speed rail but also the local transport networks that feed it. In France, high speed rail was originally concerned only with fast journeys between cities. Now it is seen as one part of a regional and local transport network, with connections between transport modes essential to ensuring high speed lines serve and benefit their wider areas. This means easy interchange at high speed stations to other lines, and improved local transport to ensure people can reach new high speed connections. Both are unresolved issues for much of the HS2 route, which has no confirmed connection to the existing HS1 line.
- Ticketing could make all the difference. SNCF is experimenting with single class trains and cheaper tickets available at short notice to ensure trains are full. This means travelling for a fraction of the full fare within a 2-hour window, with a message to your phone telling you when you will travel 15 minutes before the train leaves. Applied in the UK, new approaches to ticketing could overcome price objections to HS2, and ensure more efficient use of capacity.
- The high speed rail network is Europe-wide. It therefore seems surprising that UK appraisal tools do not currently allow the benefits of improved international connectivity between cities to be taken in account.
Post-Olympics, expectations across Europe are high, for example SNCF told the group that since the UK had shown its ability to deliver large, complex, impressive infrastructure projects at London 2012, they imagined that the delivery of high speed rail should be characterised by the same approach and standards. Decisions that will determine whether these expectations are fulfilled will be taken this year, with the next milestone being the Higgins Report due in March, which could recommend speeding up delivery of lines to Manchester and Sheffield. Whatever the final budget and timetable, learning from countries that have already delivered high speed rail is an obvious way to avoid mistakes and fulfil the potential of a once in a generation investment.