ITC debates the effects of HSR on our cities

Two Speed Britain: How will High Speed Rail affect our cities and regions?

The Occasion


The British Government has announced plans to develop a High Speed rail network linking London and Northern England at an estimated total expenditure of £34 billion. These new links connecting our major cities invite a raft of questions regarding Britain’s regional development. Will High Speed Rail create a new Mega-City Region extending from Manchester to London? To what extent will these links enhance London’s economic dominance? And how will the connectivity and growth of cities bypassed by High Speed Rail be affected?

To debate these changes the ITC hosted a discussion evening on 5th October, welcoming more than 50 senior experts from the rail, road, engineering, planning, urbanism, consultancy and local government sectors. The evening was chaired by Nigel Hugill, ITC Commissioner and Chairman of the Centre for Cities. Leading discussion were a panel of experts comprising ITC Patron and internationally acclaimed planning expert Professor Sir Peter Hall, Professor Henry Overman, Director of the Spatial Economics Research Centre at the LSE, and regional transport expert Matt Brunt, Assistant Director of the PTEG support unit.


What will be the effects of High Speed Rail? – key issues raised by the speakers:

  • Sir Peter Hall reminded guests that High Speed Rail (HSR) was a means to an end. He highlighted its importance for improving regional accessibility, drew attention to the way that it could shrink distance, and explained the benefits HSR could bring to urban areas when successfully connected to local infrastructure. In order to achieve these ends Sir Peter noted that it was essential to plan HSR as part of a holistic transport network.
  • Sir Peter pointed out the importance of creating well-connected city hubs in High Speed Rail plans. Taking the audience through the best solutions for London, Birmingham and Manchester, he noted that poor local links would result in High Speed Rail failing to achieve its desired ends. London, he suggested, would be best served with a superhub connecting Euston and St Pancras, with a separate hub at Old Oak Common providing connections to the West Coast Main Line and Crossrail, at the same time helping to regenerate the area. Birmingham would require a hub that connected the redeveloped New Street Station, while a Manchester hub would require significant investment to replace poor local interchanges and provide faster regional transit.
  • Henry Overman expressed strong disagreement that High Speed Rail could contribute to regional development. He argued that who you are, not where you live, was more important for wealth creation. Citing as an example the underuse of certain sections of Spain’s AVE High Speed network, he suggested that the value of HSR time savings and passenger numbers were notoriously uncertain, and highlighted a lack of modeling on the regional benefits of HSR. He added that the opportunity costs of HSR would be high, and the money would be better spent on regional infrastructure projects that had a better cost-benefit ratio.
  • Matt Brunt drew attention to poor investment in transport infrastructure outside London. He noted that transport spending is three times higher per head in the capital than in Northern England, a region that suffers from high congestion, antiquated rolling stock, and low levels of electrification. He argued that without HSR Northern Britain would become increasingly isolated, and added that potentially HSR had the capacity to act as a catalyst for improving local transport and, critically, driving devolution to the North.


Key themes raised in the discussion:

  • Capacity. It was explained that the regional benefits of High Speed Rail rested strongly on improving capacity. Rail travel continues to rise in spite of economic stagnation, placing unacceptable pressures on the current network, and jeopardizing economic growth. HSR offered the opportunity to free the existing network for increased rail freight and local services. Henry Overman countered that capacity constraints were developing all over transport networks, and more cost-effective capacity reduction schemes existed than HSR. He suggested pricing passengers off the rail network to improve capacity: an idea refuted by Sir Peter Hall who argued that this would worsen congestion on other modes.
  • Travel Demand. Some guests noted that future generations might be less likely to travel and less supportive of travel growth. Various Asian cities, including Seoul, were investing in hyper-connectivity, placing more emphasis upon digital communication than on conventional travel. It is possible this trend might reduce the need for HSR links.
  • Transformational potential of HSR. Some participants suggested that the importance of place was diminishing, and that the claims of regional transformation arising from HSR were greatly exaggerated. This was countered by experts who pointed to the transformational effects of the revitalized Chiltern Line and M40 on the wealth of the Chiltern region. The speculative investment in the transport infrastructure of the region had resulted in a paradigm shift in regional economic performance, so that the area was now one of the wealthiest in the EU. Others pointed to the transformational role that the motorway network had played in changing regional and city economies.
  • Opportunity Costs. Henry Overman proposed that a choice existed over whether the money for HSR could better be spent elsewhere. Some guests suggested that investing in the local road network, or urban transit, offered better cost-benefit outcomes. Furthermore, many such schemes were ‘ready to go’ and so the employment and transport benefits could be delivered faster. Other participants countered that cost-benefit analysis was deeply flawed as a mechanism for making policy decisions, and that investments in national and regional networks were not comparable. Sir Peter and Matt Brunt both agreed that investment in High Speed 2 was not an ‘either/or’ choice, and that complementary investment was a critical requirement for success.’
  • Local impacts. Participants stressed the need for HSR hubs to be properly integrated with local transport, citing the example of HS1 services being held to wait for local connections. Others stressed the way in which HSR would provide better connectivity between cities in the North and Midlands, thereby helping these urban centres to combine their resources and attract inward investment.
  • Political Will. It was observed that strong cross-party consensus on the benefits of HSR made it likely that it would be built. In contrast, Road and Air infrastructure building was less popular, and politically contentious. Given the likelihood of HSR development, participants argued that it was essential for it to be integrated into a national spatial and transport plan, or face the prospect of failing to meet its aims.

Future ITC Research:

Professor John Worthington explained that the ITC would be developing a new stream of research work investigating the impact of High Speed Travel, particularly Rail, on cities and places. Those interested in supporting or contributing to this work should email for further information.