Op Ed: To Get HS2 Back on Track, The UK Government Should Look to Japan’s Shinkansen.

Let’s be honest, when historians look back on this period of British politics; High Speed 2 (HS2) will be viewed as the worst government policy of the last ten years. The out-of-control budget means phase 1 from London to Birmingham, originally estimated to cost £6.1 billion, will now cost 50% more according to contractors [1]. The public only hear about HS2 when sections of the route are being cancelled because of poorly planned estimates.

Last November, the HS2 extension to Leeds was cancelled. This June the £3 billion Golborne link designed to speed up travel between London and Scotland was quietly dropped on the evening of Boris Johnson’s no confidence vote; a move described by the Railway Industry Association as ‘hugely disappointing’ [2]. An accurate description of the state HS2.

Amid all these disappointments surrounding HS2, there is a strong case for scrapping the project. That would be incredibly short-sighted, as HS2 is perhaps the most necessary transport infrastructure project for the UK since the introduction of railway travel in the 1800s.

Growing up in the Northwest of England, I am acutely aware of this necessity. Not only is it essential to improve connections between the North and London but also between Northern cities. Travel times between London and Manchester on average takes around 2 hours, two cities 210 miles (338 km) apart. While travel between Manchester and Leeds which are a mere 44 miles (71 km) apart take on average 1 hour. These are ridiculous travel times, on top of this Northern stations like Leeds are running over capacity leading to frequent delays which could be mended by redevelopment projects that would need to follow HS2 [3].

HS2 has been a hot and controversial topic for the Government, partly due to cost increases and the cancellation of significant parts of the initial project.

How can the government fix this unfixable project? The answer lies with the godfathers of high-speed rail: the Japanese. Learning from them I’m confident HS2 will be brought back on track and realise its potential.

The history of the Japanese high-speed trains, known as the Shinkansen, in many ways parallels the struggles facing HS2. When the plans for Shinkansen were announced in 1957 many questioned the need for a high-speed rail, in the age of car and airline travel, rail was viewed as an archaic mode of transport. This is not dissimilar to the current argument in Britain that the rise in working from home following the coronavirus pandemic challenges the need for HS2.

Japan similarly had to improve links between its major cities, upgrading connections between Tokyo and Osaka was the main driving force behind Shinkansen. Shinkansen shortened the journey time between both cities from 7 hours to 3 hours, in turn helped relieve a bottleneck of trains across Japan’s main railway route. HS2 has the potential to do the same for the busy west coast main line which connects the major cities of London, Birmingham and Manchester and regularly sees delays due to the high volume of trains.

One major difference between the Japanese and British government is that the Japanese had the political willpower and stamina to persevere with the project, ignoring critics. In fact, criticisms were transformed into positives; concerns over Shinkansen’s impact on protected areas of land were flipped on their heads by Kyoto city leaders, who actively lobbied for the train to pass through the ancient city. They argued that such a high-tech machine in an ancient setting adds a ‘global sheen of modernity’ [4].

Japan had the sense to look beyond these short-term criticisms to think of the long-term benefits of the project. 60 years on, the architects of Shinkansen have been proven correct: the train steadily grew into a passenger favourite overtaking aeroplanes and cars. Over the years the number of Shinkansen lines were extended. The train is a resounding success, winning fans across the world as countries worked to develop their own high-speed trains, like in France. Japan has exported its high- speed knowledge to other countries to build their own trains [5].

The blunt fact is, like with the Shinkansen, many criticisms of HS2 are based on short-term concerns surrounding construction costs and the impact on the environment. The long-term benefits of HS2 far outshine any current woes. While the current project has been far too expensive and could have been better managed, the costs are relative as the income generated across the country will invariably pay back any expenses. The greater connectivity provided by HS2 will attract investment, travel, and tourism to parts of the country once difficult to reach as the Shinkansen has in Japan [6].

Although imperfect, HS2 has the capacity to bring numerous benefits to the wider UK economy.

The benefits of HS2 are the environmental factors of a quick, efficient sustainable transport option for commuters across the country. While there are legitimate concerns around the short-term impact of construction on ecosystems, HS2 will long term help tackle climate change. Railway is the only transport mode that will meet future transport needs.  

By 2050 it is predicted globally 75% of the world will live in cities. Well-organised public transport will be imperative to move commuters around as electric cars will not absorb this level of travel [7]. Such data really drums home why HS2 is so necessary across the country. Lines such as those to Leeds and Scotland are essential, as Nick Augusteijn describes efforts to decarbonise continue ‘north of Crewe’ [8].

If the government acts now, Japanese knowledge and technology can be harnessed effectively to complete HS2 quickly and effectively creating a transport network that may one day rival Shinkansen. I would be lying if I said I had total confidence in this government’s ability to take on a goliath of a project. This is a government only maintained by quick-fix projects with no patience for a project like HS2. My hope is the inevitable end of this government will usher in a new government with renewed political and public enthusiasm, in a similar fashion to Japan, to make HS2 the success it should be.           



[1] G. Topham. 24th January 2020. Where did it all go wrong for HS2? Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/jan/24/hs2-high-speed-rail-europe-infrastructure-project [accessed: 16th June 2022]


[2] G. Topham. 7th June 2020. Rail industry groups outraged as HS2 Golborne link quietly scrapped. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/jun/07/rail-bosses-outraged-as-hs2-golborne-link-quietly-scrapped [accessed: 16th  June 2022]


[3] C. Burn. 24th February 2022. HS2 cancellation tears up 10 years of development planning for Leeds, Tracy Brabin tells MPs. Available at:   https://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/politics/hs2-cancellation-tears-up-decade-of-development-planning-for-leeds-brabin-says-3584533 [accessed: 18th June 2022]


[4] K. Bohn. 17th February 2022. Exploring how the world’s first bullet train captivated the globe. Available at: https://www.psu.edu/news/research/story/exploring-how-worlds-first-bullet-train-captivated-globe/ [accessed: 20th June 2022]


[5] Nippon.com. 1st October 2014. The Shinkansen Turns 50: The History and Future of Japan’s High-Speed Train. Available at:  https://www.nippon.com/en/features/h00078/

[accessed: 19th June 2022]


[6] P. Brasor and M. Tsubuku. 30th September 2014. How the Shinkansen bullet train made Tokyo into the monster it is today. Available at:  https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/sep/30/-sp-shinkansen-bullet-train-tokyo-rail-japan-50-years [accessed: 22nd June 2022]


[7] B. Jones. 30th May 2022. Faster, cleaner, greener: What lies ahead for the world’s railways. Available at:  https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/future-rail-travel-cmd/index.html [accessed: 22nd  June 2022]


[8] N. Augusteijn. 16th June 2022. Industry at large is in condemnation of HS2 Golborne link cancellation. Available at: https://www.railtech.com/infrastructure/2022/06/16/industry-at-large-is-in-condemnation-of-hs2-golborne-link-cancellation/?gdpr=accept [accessed: 18th June 2022]