Think what you will about Boris Johnson, he's certainly got a way with words.

Announcing that his Cabinet had decided to approve HS2, the high speed rail route from London to the North, he went into overdrive in the House of Commons this week.

Talking of a 'transport revolution' to 'level up' the country, Mr Johnson described how he proposed to solve the 'great musculoskeletal problem of UK transport'.

Yes, he said, local transport links around the country were important. He pledged a £5billion package of investment in buses and cycles, to include more than 4,000 'brand new buses'. But then he launched into a flight if oratory that was pure Boris.

We must fix the arthritis in the fingers and the toes, he said. "But we also have to fix the spine. Our generation faces a historic choice: we can try to get by with the existing routes from north to south and consign the next generation to overcrowding and standing up in the carriages, or we can have the guts to take a decision ..that will deliver prosperity to every part of the country."

That decision was to go ahead with HS2 - though there will be a review into how to deliver the northern half of the route from Birmingham to Leeds and Manchester.

But Mr Johnson still wasn't finished.

With half an eye on the Northern former Labour voters who helped him win his majority, he said that many in the North were crying out for better east-west links. So the so-called 'Northern Powerhouse Rail' project, which would connect cities across the North, was still very much on track, he said. It was not an either/or between that and HS2. "Both are needed, and both will be built as quickly and cost-effectively as possible."

Great rhetoric. But will Mr Johnson deliver? Is HS2 - which is predicted to cost more than £100 billion and which won't arrive in Yorkshire before 2040 - really good news, or a colossal waste of money? And what will it mean for York?


“We welcome this announcement that HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail will proceed," said Simon Brereton, the council's head of economic growth. "Since the railways first started, York has been a key hub of the north of England network. As such, connectivity and the rail engineering industries are vital to York’s economy. Enhancing and expanding the rail network can only be good to York.”

Cllr Andy D'Agorne, the green councillor who holds the transport portfolio, was more lukewarm. If HS2 did go ahead, it was vital that York should be connected to it, he said. But improved rail links connecting cities across the North were more important - and we needed those now, not in 20 years time. "At the moment you can get to London more quickly (by rail) than you can get to Liverpool. We urgently need improved infrastructure in the short term."

He also worries that HS2, by improving connections between York and the North to London, might simply suck more wealth down to the capital. And what might be the impact on house prices in York if the city becomes a commuter town for London? "If a stockbroker can leave home in York at 7am and be in an office in London at 9am, what impact might that have?"


Andrew Digwood, president of the York and North Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce, gives HS2 a big thumbs-up. It is not about shaving 20 minutes off the train journey to London, he stresses. The real benefit is that HS2 will free up capacity on existing rail routes - including extra capacity for freight. This will be great news for businesses in the North, opening up opportunities and helping the region realise its economic potential. HS2 will not work in isolation, however, he stresses: it must be part of a properly interconnected modern rail system (so no separate HS2 stations on opposites sides of cities to existing stations) which should include Northern Powerhouse Rail.

Carolyn Frank, development manager for the North Yorkshire Federation of Small Businesses, also welcomed the announcement. Hopefully local small businesses could be involved in constructing the route, which would bring jobs and investment, she said. But she has a concern, too: that the investment in HS2 might come at the expense of investment in more local transport needs. Northern Powerhouse Rail, to improve east-west connections between Northern cities, was every bit as vital as HS2, she said. And there is a desperate need for investment in other aspects of local transport: dualling the A64, and better rural buses.


Yes, HS2 will be expensive, says Dr Kevin Tennent, a senior lecturer in Management at the University of York. But there will be big potential benefits, he stresses.

By taking high speed services off existing rail routes, HS2 will free up capacity on those routes, meaning better and more frequent local passenger services, and more scope for rail freight. That in turn will mean reducing journeys - both passenger and freight - on roads, which will be good for the environment. High speed north to south rail links might also reduce air travel, he says - again good for the environment.

For York, with its rich rail history, there will be lots of job opportunities. And faster connections to London will also give younger York people with good qualifications the chance to live in their home city while commuting to London. Yes, he says, there are big challenges with any large infrastructure project. "But there will be big potential benefits too."


Jo Mason's house is one of the 121 homes which will be isolated on an island of land surrounded by railway lines in the village of Church Fenton if HS2 goes ahead. She already has railway lines at one side. But the proposal is to build a viaduct on the other side to connect the new HS2 route to the East Coast mainline, she says. This will leave her home and many others sandwiched.

She's dreading the prospect. But that's not the only reason she is against HS2. It will be a disaster for the country, she says: a colossal waste of money that will wreak huge environmental damage. Why is it that politicians can always find a magic money tree to pay for projects like this? she asks. "Our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will still be subsidising this years from now. And I don't know of a single person who could not think of a better use for that money."


HS2 has four objectives, says Prof Tony May, the former director of the Institute for Transport Studies at the University of Leeds: increasing rail capacity, improving connectivity, rebalancing the economy and reducing carbon emissions.

"It certainly contributes to the first of these, but it is an extremely expensive and slow way of doing so, with benefits only realised 10 or more years hence," he says. "It offers limited connectivity, and totally fails to improve it where it is most needed on journeys which do not involve London.

"It is extremely debatable whether it will strengthen the economy of the North. Experience in France and Japan indicates that neither Paris nor Tokyo has become less economically dominant as a result of high speed rail operation. And it is a disaster in terms of our target of being carbon neutral by 2050."

Significantly, high speed is not needed to meet any of the stated objectives, Prof May says - so why the insistence on going faster? "Increasing the design speed from 300km/h to 400km/h adds significantly to the construction costs and environmental and ecological damage (because it has to avoid curves), increases the energy costs by perhaps 50 per cent, and seriously aggravates its impact on global warming."

As far as York, any benefits are are likely to be small and far off, he says. "Services will not reach York for over 20 years, and when they do the journey time to London may fall to 95 minutes. The Azuma could readily achieve 100 minutes. What York would really benefit from is an improved east-west route across the north (HS3/ Northern Powerhouse Rail). This would significantly improve connectivity and reduce journey times. Yet there is still no committed timetable for these improvements, which would cost a fraction of that of HS2."