Plan B: an alternative high-speed rail-and-road plan for the UK

hs2, the proposed High Speed rail line from London to Birmingham and northern England, has its critics, many of whom can be ignored because they are NIMBYs, or people who deny that transport links constrain our economic growth, or people who simply deny the need for higher living standards. But most people do want higher living standards, meaning conventional economic growth, and to move around our island more quickly and more freely. More and more people agree that poor transport links do limit the British economy. This is the core rationale for hs2, which is designed to move people rapidly around the UK.

The UK’s obvious regional problem

But has anyone asked whether hs2 is in the right place, to begin with? When built will it really give us the ideal transport network for this island? It will cost £30-50bn and create a twin track railway from London to ‘the north’ up and down the spine of England. But we have severe regional imbalances in the UK with half the country trying to squeeze into the south eastern corner of our overcrowded island, and actually plenty of space in Scotland, Wales, the north and the west. For a century governments have tried to persuade people to live outside the south east, and, by and large, this policy has failed. Everyone seems to want to live near London. The consequence, though, is that south eastern England is vastly overcrowded, road and rail links are permanently overloaded, the price of building land is ten times that in the peripheral regions, house prices are ten times annual salaries, and pressure on green space is intense. This government’s response is to try to reduce the planning constraints on building new houses, which is often locally resisted, and to launch a Help To Buy scheme for first time buyers. Critics say Help To Buy will simply create another housing bubble because, fundamentally, the overwhelming constraint on the supply of houses in southern England is that there is not enough building land.

Where hs2 will go

UK with HS2Our existing infrastructure was designed for 19th and 20th century population patterns. In the the 19th century railways were centred on London, and when we finally got round to building a national network of motorways in the late twentieth century these focused on a central spine up the middle of England because the planners were worried there wouldn’t be enough traffic to justify motorways up the sides of England or going across it. The centrepiece was the M25 which would link all the radial regional motorways, without the need to go right into the heart of overcrowded London. And, of course, within five years of being opened the M25 was not only full to capacity, the Ministry of Transport was planning to expand it to 4- and 5-lanes all the way round its 117 mile course. Even with these it’s still full 18 hours a day almost every day of the year. Indeed every new motorway in southern England exceeds its designed load within months of opening. 

hs2 reinforces the central spine, linking London to Birmingham and then to Manchester or Leeds. The rationale for this is that a new transport link should link the centres of demand and supply – the biggest cities first. Building hs2 will bring the English Midlands closer to London, and Lancashire and Yorkshire closer to Birmingham and London. But we already have lots of railways and motorways that do just that, or could  in most cases, be upgraded to provide the extra capacity and speed.

What hs2 will never do

One day, in thirty years time perhaps, hs2 may do something for Scotland. But it will never do anything for southern England, the south west, Wales, the north east, or the whole of eastern England because it doesn’t go anywhere near them. And all these regions have pockets of persistent unemployment and room for businesses to provide jobs, housing and transport links. They are crying out for high speed links not just to London but also to each other, since everyone knows getting into and out of London will always be a frightful crush.

Plan BWe need to plan from scratch a high speed transport system that connects people around the whole island. It should feed our existing motorway and fast train links, yet provide new national capacity that is really fast: 500-1000km per hour. If we can build this people really will be happy to live away from the overcrowded south east, confident that they can get to London within an hour or two if they need to. An integrated 4-track high speed rail and motorway would link London to the regions, yet avoid the congested central spine. It would also take vehicles off the existing overloaded motorways.

But most of the UK’s population is down the spine?

Yes, and putting more infrastructure down the spine only reinforces that. If you want to persuade more people to live in the periphery you have to build a peripheral transport system.

It’s daft to go from Birmingham to London via Cambridge, as your map shows

Not if you’re travelling at 300-600 mph it isn’t. How would you travel from Hendon to Reigate? Straight through the middle of London? No, you’d use the M25. But if you were to explain this to a Victorian or Elizabethan they would think you mad. You know that congestion permitting you’ll be able to do 70 mph around many parts of the M25, although to them this is an unimaginable speed for a personal vehicle. In 2040 you’ll know that from Birmingham New Street you’ll get to the Crossrail Brentwood interchange in 30 minutes, from where you are linked directly, through the Elizabeth line, to the entire London Underground service.

But trains can’t go that fast

Japan’s magnetic levitation train already exceeds 370 mph (600 kph), so 600 mph is just a question of time, track and ‘rolling stock’. Shanghai’s maglev goes from 0 to 270 mph in 4 minutes, covering the 18 miles from airport to city centre in just 8 minutes. hs2’s “up to 250 mph” may well end up being limited to 200 mph in practice, and is old technology before it’s even built. Once you build a track it’s permanent, so let’s build it properly for speeds up to 1000 kph (620 mph).

So what would we get out of this massive scheme?

Fast frequent journeys

Given the huge sunk costs of the track we should ‘sweat the asset’ by running trains every five minutes round the island, or in giant ‘figures of 8’ through the central node, Birmingham New Street. A trip once round the island at 500 kph with 8 stops would take 5 1/2 hours

  • Edinburgh to Brentwood in 1 hr 45 mins
  • Glasgow to Birmingham in 1 hr 22 mins
  • Ashford to Exeter in 1 hr 10 mins
  • Exeter to Glasgow in 1 hr 47 mins

With frequent fast services people will have strong incentives to move to the peripheral regions knowing they can get to London or almost anywhere in the island within a few hours – and connect at Ashford with the continent.

More affordable housing, lower unemployment, higher living standards

A peripheral track causes the benefits of fast transport to spread over a far wider area than a spine scheme can ever do. Demand for new offices and houses will disperse across the UK into regions where there is genuinely more space and fewer planning constraints. Property prices in the major cities will revert to less absurd fractions of London prices, and spiral outwards to surrounding towns. Higher incomes from commuters will directly benefit regional economies so that job creation and growth in living standards are more even across the country.

Original new transport routes: the Basic B

Rather than duplicating existing motorway and rail routes, Plan B complements the existing infrastructure with north-south routes up and down the coasts – invigorating coastal cities such as Liverpool, Newcastle and Hull – while providing three vital east-west routes across Britain, to link Exeter with Ashford in the south, Birmingham with Wales and East Anglia in the Midlands, and Hull to Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool in the north. All these relieve pressures on the existing M62, M6, M5, M40, M1, M20 and the M27, but especially the massively-overloaded M4, M3 and M25.

Plan B misses out some key peripheries

Plan B enhancedThe basic ‘B’ frame can easily be expanded to suit transport needs in the mid-century.  The Northern Powerhouse route from Hull to Liverpool could be extended to Holyhead in the west and ultimately under the Irish Sea to Belfast and Dublin, with the Irish government’s agreement. These would be big engineering challenges, and have big financial costs, but would probably be eligible for EU funding. Extensions in East Anglia and Scotland are straightforward, while further high speed links around London and the South East would always use Plan B as the basic frame on which to build.

Could we use it as an alternative to air travel?

Yes, by travelling as fast as subsonic aircraft not only will Plan B reduce air travel within the UK, it will pass Glasgow, Edinburgh, Birmingham International and Stansted airports, as well as linking through Crossrail (the Elizabeth line) to Heathrow. So British flyers would be able to get to any of these airports within a couple of hours, reducing pressures on all the London airports. And a south east scheme could be extended to link Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports by very high speed passenger rail links, so eliminating the need for a third runway at Heathrow.

How would you move freight onto this high speed grid?

Each city on the network would have two stops: a city centre station below the existing main line railway station for  foot passengers, and a Parkway stop on a motorway outside for freight. This would admit containers, trucks, vans, and cars, each with their drivers. So you would put your car on outside Edinburgh and take it off three hours later in Southampton. Why even consider the M1?

How do you mix passengers and freight on the same track?

That’s the advantage of four tracks: two up and two down, with additional accelerating and decelerating lanes as needed, bypass routes for trains not stopping at this station, and rapid re-coupling yards in the Parkways for carriages to load before the train comes through, and to unload afterwards. We’d want better carriages than Eurotunnel’s, though – with seats, windows, toilets and wi-fi  for instance.

NIMBYs in southern England will never agree to a south coast high-speed train and motorway

Along the south coast, and for much of southern England, we’d put much of it in tunnels, so that it arrives under city centre stations to connect with the existing regional railways and buses. The predominant rocks in southern England are chalk, limestone and sandstones, which are ideal for tunnelling, and save on costs (e.g. you don’t have to buy land you deep-bore tunnel under), land use, compensation payments, noise (while constructing, and ever after, in operation), and the environment.

Can trains even go through tunnels at 500-1000 kph?

It’s an engineering challenge at present – but so were steam trains and aircraft in their day. Altering the pressure before and after the train in a tunnel reduces many problems, and may even be a complete solution. If Plan B were to get a national go-ahead (see later) the engineers would have about ten years to figure this out before we start building the first tunnels. Remember that when Brunel designed the Great Western Railway (the world’s first high speed railway) trains could not exceed 35 mph. Yet he designed a track to run at 100 mph, even though his steam trains could not do this for another 70 years. Nowadays every high-speed train to Bristol or Oxford does 125 mph down that track every day. When we build a permanent track it is essential to build it for the long term.

Why a rail-and-road scheme?

High speed trains cannot stop every five minutes – or they won’t be high speed trains. This limits the number of stops around the UK to about 14. Most car journeys are short and will not involve two of the designated 14 stops. People want route flexibility, which can be provided by having more than 14 stops on the motorways, each with local exits. As already noted, viewed just as a motorway network, Plan B complements the existing central spine of motorways.

The second, and more important, reason for building an integrated rail-and-road network is the massive saving on construction costs and mess. Most of the cost of a new railway or road is the cost of building bridges under or over other roads, railways, rivers, valleys etc.which cross the new route. A single bridge that carries a railway and road over a given obstacle costs much less than two separate bridges over the same obstacle: one planning enquiry, one set of drainage plans, large construction cost savings, one disruption to local residents and traffic …

Why is this scheme more environmentally-friendly than other schemes?

Maglev trains are extremely fast, light, and clean. Think of them as energy-efficient ‘planes without wings’ running on permanent tracks. The energy from decelerating trains can be used to power accelerating trains, so their energy-efficiency can be stunning. And tunnels use scarce land in southern England most efficiently. But there is a construction benefit too: we can build the new route first as a conventional 4-track railway, and move all the materials for the high speed track and the motorway along the railway, rather than disrupting local roads. Once the tracks are completely built we convert the 4-track construction railway to 4 high-speed maglev tracks.

What about all the tunnelling spoil?

We will recycle the excavated chalk, limestone, sandstone and harder rocks from northern Britain to make the concrete, ballast, embankments etc. for the route’s bridges, viaducts and tunnel linings, transporting it and mixing up the concrete along the railway.

This scheme will bankrupt the nation

No, we should only do this if we think it will pay for itself inside a hundred years. Our national income is currently constrained by binding transport bottlenecks in road, rail and air, which we must relieve over the next twenty years. So, no-one is denying the need to make the A303 a motorway, or massively upgrade the existing west coast mainline railway in the next twenty years. But we need a plan for beyond that, which is where ‘Plan B’ comes in, as it will take twenty years to plan and build. Far from bankrupting us, if Plan B really is a good investment it will pay for itself by enabling the whole of the UK’s GDP to grow faster. Chancellors of the Exchequer fifty years from now will get higher tax receipts from that higher GDP and use higher tax revenues from that bigger GDP to pay back the debt. How much lower would the UK’s GDP be now – and the Treasury’s tax receipts? – if we hadn’t built such vital bits of national infrastructure as the M25, the Thames Barrier or the London Underground? Haven’t they paid for themselves many times over?

You must have an order of magnitude cost?

Say £400bn. This would add 20-25% to the UK’s national debt. It would be spent over about twenty construction years, and would be funded by 50-100 year bonds. Global capital markets will gobble up British government debts like these, especially if they add significantly to the UK’s productive capacity. The cost of borrowing on our longest bonds (30 years) at present is an incredibly low 2% nominal, so there can be no doubt that there is a huge appetite in global capital markets for UK government debt, particularly if it is the kind of borrowing that will help the UK to grow – i.e. pay for itself.

A big ‘if’. How do we assess whether this will really add to the UK’s productive potential?

There is no objective answer: like all infrastructure investments it’s essentially a guess. Why not trust the people to make the right decision in a referendum? After all, it’s their money. But at its simplest think of it like this: a public investment needs to earn 6% a year to be worthwhile*. 6% of £400bn is £24bn. UK GDP will be about £2400 bn round 2021, and £24bn is 1% of that. Do you think Plan B will raise the UK’s GDP by more than 1%, compared to having no Plan B?


Isn’t this worth thinking about, or even publicly debating? Our view is that hs2 is the wrong railway in the wrong place. If we’re really going to plan our future transport systems let’s do it properly, and solve the UK’s main regional and housing problems at the same time. We’ll only get one chance to build a permanent track round this island. Let’s consult everybody and do it right, for once. If the numbers in this article are roughly right the central question in a national referendum should be

Do you think the ‘Plan B’ transport system will raise the UK’s GDP permanently by more than 1%? If you think Yes you may wish to vote for the scheme. If you think No you may want to vote against it.

So, should the United Kingdom adopt some version of Plan B? Please Vote Yes or No.”

Whatever you think, shouldn’t you at least be asked?

Note *Before 2003 the public sector test discount rate for evaluating public sector capital projects was 6%, but in 2003 the Treasury lowered it to 3.5% (source: latest Treasury Green Paper). To be conservative we have kept the old higher rate.

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Discuss: “Plan B: an alternative high-speed rail-and-road plan for the UK”

  1. May 5, 2014 at 20:34 #

    Surely the government and its advisors have looked at this sort of plan, and many others, and concluded that HS2’s planned route is the best value for money?

    Posted by noddy
  2. May 5, 2014 at 21:10 #

    You would think so. But page 2 of WS Atkins October 2013 report “HS2 Strategic Alternatives” makes clear that the objectives of their major study are to look at strategic alternatives to HS2’s planned route given the objectives of linking London to Birmingham. So their study took it as given that London needed to be linked to Birmingham, and then considered “strategic alternatives” which could be obtained by considering major enhancements to the existing conventional rail network. The objectives are carefully specified as ‘capacity’ (passenger.kilometres) and ‘connectivity’ (basically travel time and frequency), but at no time were the consultants asked to consider the connectivity of cities such as Cardiff, Exeter, Southampton, Ashford, Cambridge, Norwich, or Hull, for example – i.e. any of the population in western, southern and eastern Britain except London. In effect the people of Britain have been railroaded down the HS2 option as the only feasible choice: Take it or Leave it.
    More fundamentally it seems that no-one in government, or out, has considered what future distribution of population would be desirable in this island. Of course population migration is the result of millions of decentralised employment and housing decisions, but these are all taken within a framework of major infrastructure decisions taken by government on the country’s behalf. Opportunities like HS2 are the only times the people of Britain ever get the opportunity to consciously shape the future of our island’s population distribution. We should use it to build a wide high speed network around most of the UK, rather than a narrow central corridor.

    Posted by mark

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