Whilst I've worked in the rail industry for over a decade, I am first and foremost a rail traveller. And although I am currently living in Madrid, I am a regular traveller on the European rail network. So when I first heard about the proposed HS2 high-speed rail plans, one of my first thoughts was "what will this do for me?"
Judging by the criticism that HS2 has endured recently, there are plenty of individuals whose answer would be "not enough". As a two-part project, the HS2 rail line is set to connect London to Birmingham by 2026, and onward to Manchester and Leeds by 2032. Journey times between the north and south would be slashed. But with estimated costs hovering around the £42 billion mark, it is a serious investment by the government.
Some detractors have been scathing in their assertion that unless you happen to live in the affected cities (London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds), there will be no tangible personal benefits. They suggest that it will be an expensive, rather irrelevant, project. However, supporters of the project have pointed out that HS2 could bring significant socio-economic benefits to towns and cities in the north through a more efficient, integrated transport network that would help to encourage inward investment thanks to improved connectivity.
By creating a direct high-speed line between the north and south, there will be the opportunity for businesses to move out of the traditional London hub, and flourish in the northern cities. Should employees choose to live north and commute down to London, they could feasibly do so. Travelling from Birmingham to London is a far more appealing prospect if it takes 45 minutes, rather than the current 83.
We need only look to other European cities where commuting to work on high-speed rail has become the norm, to see how effectively this can work. Take Germany as an example, where large numbers of people commute to work daily on the ICE train from Mannheim to Frankfurt in a journey that takes just 40 minutes.
Opening the UK up to European travel
Beyond improving connections and journey times between the north and south of England, HS2 will act as a valuable high-speed gateway between the north and the rest of Europe, helping to address a common gripe that rail travel to Europe requires the traveller to start their journey in London. Via a potential connection to the existing HS1 route that runs from London's St Pancras to Paris and Brussels in 2 hours 15 minutes and 1 hour 51 minutes respectively, residents in Birmingham and the surrounding area could hop on the HS2 to London, and be in Paris in just over 3.5 hours.
Importantly, HS2 would also link cities in the north of England to the dozens of cities and towns served by the extensive high-speed rail network across the rest of Europe. For example, by connecting in London to Eurostar's non-stop service to Avignon, travellers from the north of England could set their sights further than Scarborough beach with destinations such as Provence and the Côte d'Azur within easy reach by train.
Increased competition will bring improved options for the traveller
The concept of improving connections between the north of the country and the rest of Europe is not new; in 1997, direct Eurostar trains from Manchester to Paris were tested, but the long journey times and popularity of low cost airlines meant it wasn't a viable option. By dramatically reducing journey times, HS2 is a progressive step towards making high-speed rail travel between the rest of the UK and Europe a reality, and for the first time will offer a feasible alternative to air travel.
By opening up competition, not only with airlines on a European level but also within the UK between rail operators, HS2 will bring many benefits to the traveller, who will be afforded a wider choice of journey options at more competitive prices. Add to this the fact that rail is not only a more convenient, comfortable and efficient means of travel, which enables travellers to relax or continue working uninterrupted throughout the journey, but also the more environmentally friendly choice, it's easy to see why it is increasingly favoured for cross-border leisure and business travel. I expect that over the coming years, large numbers of travellers who have previously depended on air travel will make the switch towards to high-speed rail and the numerous benefits that it offers.
There's no doubt that HS2 will be a significant monetary investment for the UK, but I firmly believe it is an important one. While the UK currently lags a long way behind many of its European neighbours, such as France, Spain and Germany, in high-speed rail development, HS2 is a crucial first step in changing the face of both domestic and international travel and improving mobility in Europe.