Football and High Speed Rail 2: The Pros and Cons

HS2
Image available under Creative Commons (c) mwmbwls

One of the more emotive of political causes in recent times has been the plan to build a new high speed rail line between London, the North of England and the Midlands; the now notorious High Speed 2 project – often abbreviated to plain HS2.

With construction due to begin in 2017, the plan is for the line to extend north westwards from Euston station in the capital to Birmingham before branching in the shape of a Y towards Manchester and Leeds. Such a brand spanking new resource has obvious implications for both football clubs and football supporters so how much impact will the new line have and will we be better off for it?

Infrastructure projects of this kind are often touted as a way of opening up a country to greater economic prosperity and I have explored the advantages of greater connectivity before. With journey times cut to just 49 minutes between London and Birmingham and an eventual (by the completion of stage 2 of HS2 in 2033) 1 hour and 8 minutes between London and Manchester, the ease of getting to games should theoretically be greatly enhanced. Leave Piccadilly at midday and there might be time for a quick pint in the Euston Tap before getting the tube to the Arsenal.

That’s an obvious one but proponents of the scheme have also highlighted how existing train lines will be freed up for a greater volume of traffic – so Watford and Milton Keynes will suddenly be more accessible and capacity is likely to be freed up on a host of other lines including links between Newcastle and Manchester.

On the HS2 routes themselves, the East Midlands is one region which could potentially benefit from the routing of the line close to its midst – a new hub station is planned at Toton which it is claimed will provide ease of access to Nottingham, Leicester and Derby – and consequently the City Ground, King Power Stadium and Pride Park. More on that later – while clubs dotted along the line should stand to benefit from their positioning – it has been argued that Lille the city developed its role as a knowledge economy after the construction of Eurostar and an additionally rapid route into Paris while football hipsters everywhere will be aware of the advantages that accrued on the football pitch.

Perhaps the most significant HS2 related football move to date came last week when Tony Fernandes announced plans to move Queen’s Park Rangers to a new 40,000 capacity stadium at Old Oak Common in west London, spitting distance from Loftus Road and involving a plan for 20,000 new homes and a specific new station for the high speed line. Wormwood Scrubs is just down the road of course – so comments on ease of access for Joey Barton might be fair game.

Another potential advantage to the line is the environmental impact of the new line, hotly contested by such groups as Stop HS2, the HS2 Action Alliance and the gloriously named Action Groups Against High Speed Two (AGHAST). Theoretically, the ability to travel the length of the country quickly will persuade people out of their cars and free up some of the overly choked roads such as the M40, M1 and M6, while for supporters, the possibility of enjoying a relaxing pint or two en route to the game and without worrying about the drink drive limit should help foster a new atmosphere of treating supporters like adults (see Tom Furnival-Adams’ post on this from a few weeks ago).

Add to that a number of additional non-soccer related advantages including the prospect of annoying a few posh nimbys in Buckinghamshire (I speak as a native of the county), the heartening investment in a public good that has been all too rare in this age of austerity, the comparative closeness of Old Oak Common to Heathrow and thus the potential to attract still more legions of overseas fans as well as some positive cost-benefit analyses and what’s not to like?

Very little – but the operative word is theoretically .

First, you’d have to be several sandwiches short of a picnic to believe that the cost is going to come in at what it’s claimed it will be and that this won’t be reflected in the ticket prices when the first stage from London to Birmingham is complete in 2026.

It cost me over £70 for a return ticket to Blackburn to witness the appalling 0-0 draw with Reading recently – it’s a fair bet that a similar ticket via Manchester on HS2 could be three times that and Robert Peston’s assertion that the estimates of the project’s devisers are ‘spuriously precise’ are extremely hard to argue with.

At the moment, it’s projected that the whole thing will come in at £42.6 billion with an extra £7.5 billion thrown in for rolling stock. Given that the London Olympics exceeded their original budget three and a half times over, the spiralling cost of the new Wembley and the general tendency of planners to underestimate costs in order to get them accepted, that sounds like cloud cuckoo land. Even the more realistic estimates of £70 billion may prove to be overcooked given the uncertainty of any kind of financial forecasting, let alone over the long term.

Train travel in Britain is woefully, indignation-provokingly expensive and that isn’t going to change with the introduction of HS2.

Secondly, QPR’s project aside, the line actually does a neat job of bisecting our football grounds. That new station at Toton will likely sport the dreaded ‘Parkway’ epithet and if you have heard of the place, then you are a better man than me. Indeed, Derby City Council expressed puzzlement that the line to Leeds isn’t being directed via the city itself and Leicester and Nottingham will still be a fair old charge of a cab ride way from the new hub. Similarly, the location of new city centre stations at Birmingham Curzon Street and Leeds New Lane will do nothing to improve on existing travel plans for fans headed to – say – the Hawthorns or Elland Road.

But thirdly, and most importantly of all, the line will be £50 billion or so of public money that could be spent elsewhere – on schools and hospitals yes, but even within the context of rail, there are surely better places it could be deployed.

Tim Harford, author of The Undercover Economist has argued that it would have been better to improve access between stations where it is currently poor – in the North of England in particular where anyone who has trundled out to Hull or Middlesbrough on the train will appreciate the agony. Similarly, Wales will see little benefit from the plans, ditto the Southwest, ditto Newcastle and ditto, albeit to a lesser degree due to its proximity to Manchester, Liverpool.

Regional development policy in recent years has seen a real polarisation develop between winners and losers and it’s been politically expedient for the money to be concentrated in a few global cities, the kinds of places that see foreign investment and grandstanding projects take precedence over even development – more often than not, these locations have been the capitals.

John Tomaney of University College London has shown how the development of high speed rail in France saw a sucking of investment away from the provinces towards the capital, already completely dominant in the national economy, just as London is in the UK, and just as Seoul and Madrid are – other centres where high speed rail plans have come to fruition.

In football, HS2 will be perfect for the development of a European super league. Suddenly, the current big 4 are based in two English cities – and which two cities does HS2 happen to link? Yes, you’ve guessed it. With the Olympics having reinforced London’s unhealthy economics hegemony over the rest of the country, we are once again turning into a nation of haves and have-nots and the concentration of investment in projects that benefit the already wealthy will only see it much harder for cities such as Hull and Plymouth to compete – both in economic and footballing terms.

It’s easy to ignore High Speed 2 given how far into the future it will be – completion of the first stage won’t be until 4 years after the Qatar World Cup and I entered upon the researching and writing of this post with an open mind. There are strong arguments on both sides but the ultimate conclusion is that this will probably be a missed opportunity for football fans. We don’t know how high ticket prices will be and we don’t know the schedules – so it’s possible that it may suddenly be possible to get back from Turf Moor after a Tuesday night match – but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Rob Langham (pen name: Lanterne Rouge) is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 44 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Football Attic, Twisted Blood, In Bed with Maradona, A United View on Football and The Blizzard.

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6 Comments on "Football and High Speed Rail 2: The Pros and Cons"

  1. Jonathan Rodgers says:

    Fascinating & thought provoking post. Shocked you didn’t refer to Pride Park as The iPro Stadium though!

    • Lanterne Rouge says:

      cheers Jonathan – I’ll confess that I’d missed that particular stadium name change and had to double check that of the King Power Stadium. On a recent edition of the We Are Going Up podcast, the whole topic was discussed and the uys saidf renaming didn’t matter because everyone carries on calling the ground by the old name anyway – I’ve obviously corroborated that.

  2. Dom says:

    Really interesting and balanced piece. I’m really annoyed about how this whole HS2 project has been rushed through without looking at how it can be made to work for people outside of London (i.e. keeping ticket prices low or picking the locations better). Like you’ve said I’m sure there are benefits that can be reaped from it but thus far it’s been poorly handled and it seems as if it will end up at least twice the price and with half of the benefits that it could have brought (like Wembley and the Olympic legacy).

  3. Harry Cholewa says:

    You also need to consider the massive disruption during the construction phase. Euston Station will take an estimated 10 years to rebuild, with the inevitable delays ,cancellations, replacement bus services and so on. I will take a great deal of convincing that the pain will be worth it.

  4. Ben says:

    Fascinating article, which is fair to both sides of the argument and notes the many unknowns. For the record, I too know where Toton is – a bit of a no man’s land between Nottingham and Derby. Still, if it can improve speed of access to either city (which it should do, if a proper transport hub is developed), then that would be a positive.

    As for Newcastle, my hometown is already well connected with the capital (journey time of under three hours, due to the fact there are few stopping points in between) but travelling to Birmingham, south Wales and the south west can be a lengthy and painful experience – not something HS2 is really going to address.

    It’ll be interesting to see if HS2 helps to increase the size and significance of certain places (thereby affecting their club(s) and changing the football landscape) – I suspect it won’t do much other than consolidate power and influence in the hands of the big boys, though, given that its primary aim is better connection between already major urban centres.

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