The Wiki Man

Nobody takes a flight from London to Manchester. So why would we take HS2?

28 September 2013

9:00 AM

28 September 2013

9:00 AM

From Edinburgh airport there are more than 45 flights a day to London. And, I imagine, the same number back. You can fly from Edinburgh to London Heathrow, -London Gatwick, London Luton, -London Stansted and London City — even to the optimistically named -London Southend. Glasgow offers a similar choice.

I have often used these flights. I live about 25 minutes’ drive from Gatwick, so when I go to Edinburgh my -favourite plan is to take a morning train up and then fly or take the sleeper back.

Since Manchester is bigger than Edinburgh, I had naively assumed that I would be able to do something similar for an upcoming trip there.

I decided to fly from Gatwick and take the train back. ‘You can’t. There aren’t any flights from Gatwick to Manchester any more.’ OK — London City, then? ‘Nope.’ Apparently there aren’t any of those either. Nor from Luton, Stansted or Southend. Ten flights a day from Heathrow and that’s it. And the Heathrow flights are as much for transfer passengers as for people travelling point to point.

I think it says something about the priorities of the UK’s financial sector that you can take flights from London City airport to Jersey, Zurich (and Liechtenstein), Bern, Basel, Geneva, Nice (i.e. Monaco, a ‘sunny place for shady people’) and the Isle of Man (a rainy place for shady people). But not to Britain’s third city.

It says something too about the priorities of Mancunians that you can fly direct from Manchester airport to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Las Vegas and Barbados but not to Luton, Gatwick, Stansted, London City or Southend.

And all this also says something about how much importance people attach to getting between Manchester and London half an hour quicker. Not much.

There are two million people who live in Kent and Sussex and another million and a bit who live in Essex. All these people might find it takes half the time to fly to Manchester via a nearby airport than to get there via Euston — London’s nastiest and worst-connected station by far. I’m sure that, if offered £40 billion, Michael O’Leary would agree to operate these routes. Yet currently it seems demand isn’t there. Perhaps people are perfectly happy with the current speed.

You see, in technical terms, a business trip between Manchester or Birmingham and London involves that unit of time which we businesspeople call ‘a day out of the office’.

And 20 years hence, after £40 billion pounds has been spent, that same trip will involve, um, ‘a day out of the office’. True, you may get home a bit earlier. You may start the meeting a bit earlier. But in human terms, as distinct from engineering terms, nothing has changed. Edinburgh, a four-hour journey, is different. You can’t do that train journey twice in a day. Hence the need for flights.

Frankly, most businesspeople rather enjoy two hours on a train. You can read, write and look out of the window just as you do in an office — with the additional advantage that the view’s better and nobody knocks on your door to ask silly questions.

And it seems HS2 proponents acknowledge this argument. They now claim HS2 is about capacity, not speed. Well, if that’s the case, why not build a lower-speed railway where trains can actually stop to pick up passengers more than once every 120 miles?

I don’t care that Chiltern residents may be disturbed by noise. But I do think they at least deserve a nice new station out of it all. As things stand, the poor occupants of Waddesdon Manor will need to travel 60 miles in either direction just to board one of the trains thundering past the house.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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Show comments
  • rorysutherland

    Various people have suggested on Twitter that the delays at security make air travel to Manchester unfeasible. But it wouldn’t cost £40bn to solve that problem, would it? At London City you can already check-in 25 minutes before take off.

    • Hi Rory,

      It would be interesting at some point in the future to hear your opinion on Crossrail (and potentially Crossrail 2).


      • rorysutherland

        I’m generally pro. Or at least I favour the general idea of an RER-style faster means of getting from West to East in London. Whether you need a Chelsea to Hackney addition, I don’t know. Thameslink (which actually makes money, without government support) supports the value of this approach.

        However, it should extend east to Stansted or Ebbsfleet International, rather than ending at Shenfield (there is already a protected route to the west allowing it to end at Reading rather than Maidenhead). Moreover there should be a station with tons of car parking somewhere near to where it crosses the M25 at both ends.

        At the moment there is zero additional parking provision planned for Crossrail. This seems unbelievably dumb.

        • Thanks for your speedy reply.

          I see Crossrail as a mini HS2 – designed to both increase capacity and speed.

          If we applied your arguments against HS2 to Crossrail;

          – Expensive (£16bn).
          – Time savings negligible.
          – Money could be spent elsewhere on the Tube.
          – Who needs to travel from Reading to Shenfield every day or ever?
          – Only benefits Londoners/Those in the South East.

          And yet the majority of Londoners are Pro, because deep down, we know it’s needed on a number of levels, and we know that without these mass infrastructure projects we will stagnate.

          As a nation, we have a great history of engineering, with hundreds of examples of pioneering mass infrastructure projects, all of which paid dividends for years to come.

          Why stop now?

          • Alexsandr

            not convinced crossrail is the best option. The huge tunnels are very expensive. The cost of tunneling rises expentianally with the tunnel diameter.
            why not build more 12 foot diameter tubes? You could build twice the length of tunnels.

          • rorysutherland

            I buy some of this – and it’s a neat comparison, for sure. But unless you propose that people routinely commute between Manchester and London – which would be possible, but expensive with HS2 – I think there are a couple of important differences.

            1) The proportionate time savings (as a percentage of overall journey) are more significant with CR than with HS2. Particularly when you account for the duration of a journey door to door – bear in mind it takes me 80 minutes to reach Euston just to board HS2 (I live just outside the M25).

            2) There is a difference between saving someone 25 minutes twice a day, 250 times a year, as CR might do, versus saving the typical Briton 40 minutes every year or so.

            3) There are plenty of intermediate stops between Reading and Shenfield.

            4) West Ruislip to Epping on the Central Line takes 90 minutes. Longer than it takes from London to Birmingham by low-speed train.

            But point taken.

          • Ed Griffin

            The west coast mainline gets 75 million passengers a year. HS2 will probably be getting 82 million a year by 2037 (Atkins demand appraisal). That’s a lot of time saving. Crossrail brings a million more people within 45 minutes of the centre. So HS2 brings our cities closer together – making it feasible to hop on a train to Manchester on only 1 hour 8 minutes. This opens up possibilities!

            But it’s not about the time saving, it’s about the capacity – as with crossrail. And not just new capacity, but capacity released on the existing lines. By transferring the fast trains to a dedicated line, we can avoid the fast and slow trains interfering with each other and get better use from both. The idea is to feed passengers into fewer Hs2 stations to make a more efficient network. But remember hs2 trains will call at about 40 stations – as shown in the proposed service pattern – a fact not widely acknowledged.

          • londonx

            strange that such clear and logical points seem to go over the heads of so many people in this country. They write articles in the media to try and sound logical (irrelevant meandering points about personal experiences) but are merely being emotive. Which is not very useful when it comes to infrastructure.

          • Alexsandr

            But its pointless measuring Curzon street Birmingham to Euston times. You need to think of the selly oak to canary wharf time. Will HS2 make that much difference to that?

          • Ed Griffin

            It’s an embarrassment that our deep level tube lines don’t have sufficient head room at the sides of the carriage. With much of the crossrail a route outside of tunnels, let’s not subject people to these cramped trains all the way to maidenhead. The big tunnels are the right thing to do.

          • londonx

            are you seriously suggesting we build Victorian sized tunnels? Victorian tunnels are optimal are they?

          • Alexsandr

            if you can build 2 lines with 12 foot tunnels (size of the London tubes) for the price of a tunnel capable of taking main line stock then its worth a thought, isn’t it?
            The cost of a tunnel rises exponentially with the internal diameter.
            They could have saved a load on crossrail by not having overhead lines but using 3rd rail. That will fit in a smaller tunnel.

          • John

            Smaller tunnels could have a guide rail on the ceiling that the train could latch onto to prevent it hitting the walls of the tunnel.

        • LillyPaper

          I agree, also the Crossrail should connect to Ebbsfleet allow us to access the Channel tunnel?

          The following was from the Ebbsfleet news bulletin board read: “Investigations are underway, which could bring London Crossrail project to Europe.” ( )

          This seems to indicate that there are plans to extend the services, but not before completion in 2018?

    • londonx

      So an aeroplane can land directly in the centre of Manchester can it?

  • rtj1211

    Large numbers of people take a plane from Manchester to London and most will want a return flight. Many need an interconnecting flight on business, as Heathrow is the UK hub airport.

    Your useless, self-serving London-centric claptrap exposes you for what you are: unfit to comment.

    • rorysutherland

      I don’t mind your gratuitous and embittered insults, but you might want to read the article rather than just the headline. I acknowledge in the article that lots of people fly between Manchester and LHR in order to use Heathrow as a hub. What is surprising is that it is impossible to fly from Manchester to any London airports bar Heathrow – which has the highest landing charges by far of any of the London airports.

      • Ed Griffin

        Train travel is far more environmentally friendly than air travel so I’m not sure why you’re trying to encourage more domestic air travel when rail will do the job much nicer. In fact one point of HS2 is that people will shift from airplane to rail for the London to Scotland journeys as the journey time drops from 4.5 hours to 3.5 hours.

        Also What does this lack of flights say about the Uk financial sector, or demand for Manchester to London journeys by train. Not much me thinks.

        • rorysutherland

          That is true – but not as true as HS2 proponents first thought. 1) There are the environmental costs of building the thing and 2) the original estimates were based on French figures where 75% of that country’s electricity is nuclear in origin.

          But merely shifting people from planes to trains does not provide an economic justification. For that, you need to show that significantly more people will make the journey. Does encouraging more people to travel ultimately benefit the environment? Probably not.

          • londonx

            Not as true? There are environmental costs to building airports, service roads and building planes too.

            High Speed rail can use renewable electricity sources tomorrow if we decided. We can not do that with air travel and unlikely in the medium future.

            Inter City rail can carry more people more frequently direct into the city centre, airports are at best 40 minutes of extra travel away which most people use a car to reach.

            It is ridiculous to try and muddy the environmental differences between rail and air travel.

  • Colin Forbes

    It’s really pretty dim to want to fly from London to Manchester on a point to point basis – the train takes 2 hours and you’d spend more than that at the airports either end – check in, security, boarding etc. Short domestic flights are are rally only justifiable if connecting through a hub onto a long-haul flight. So why waste precious airport capacity and runway slots on short-haul domestic?
    HS2 seems to be quickly becoming the Ryanair Railway – it costs a whole lot more than you first thought, and doesn’t take you to where you want to go. The budget inflates with every breath. Now we learn that it won’t connect cities directly – only ‘parkway’ stations built miles outside the city centre – meaning that the connecting hop from HS2 parkway to city centre station entirely negates the 20 or 30 minute time advantage that the HS2 spinners trumpet.
    Capacity on the conventional should be addressed quickly – and an fraction of the £50 or 70bn budgeted for HS2 would surely make a huge dent in that. Oh – and they could try designating empty first class carriages as standard class – apart from printing a few sticky labels, an entirely free solution to a significant capacity issue.

    • rorysutherland

      There is no shortage of capacity at Stansted or Gatwick. Besides, the problem of security delays at airports could be solved with a lot less than £40bn – with special fast-track facilities for internal flights.

      Incidentally the security delay will soon be solved with technology that allows you to walk through a scanner carrying a bag without having to remove anything.

      • Colin Forbes

        If there is spare capacity at Stansted – which is really Ryanair’s airport, particularly in view of their latest deal – and Gatwick, could the lack of flights to and from Manchester be something to do with lack of demand, or commercial viability as seen by the potential airline operators? I think it may also have something to do with the economic inevitability that short flights (i.e. internals) operate from a higher fixed cost base (and therefore variable costs – fuel etc – make up a lower % of the total cost) than longer European or long-haul flights and therefore seem more expensive and have a lower yield to airlines – except, of course, where they are feeding passengers in to long haul flights, as happens principally at Heathrow. Put simply, given a fixed number of slots, airlines are choosing to operate longer, more profitable routes than less viable, shorter ones. It’s chicken and egg of course – if the fares were lower, maybe more people would fly the route. So, on that basis, why hasn’t Ryanair or Easyjet operated Stansted or Gatwick to Manchester?

        I thought that Gatwick is actively planning a second runway to be built as soon as the agreement with neighbouring local authorities expires in (I think) 2019, so presumably the airport foresees a shortage of capacity or is expecting to grow through expansion of capacity.

        Very good news about improved technology to allow a walk-through experience at security – if that is so it will immensely improve passengers’ airport experience – and allow them to spend more time in the shops! Can you share more about this please?

        However, I still think it better to spend a fraction of the HS2 £40bn on improving capacity on the conventional railway. Ho hum …

    • John

      The company I worked for set up an office near Manchester airport. Paddington Stn was not far from my home and I would take the Airport shuttle to Heathrow. It was quite quick and better than the train.
      If Manchester was such an important place a direct City Airport service would be in place as would be one from Gatwick. They point is that Manchester is that an important city – it bigs itself up a lot and some fall for it. Manchester is the UKs third city? Glaswegians would dispute that, as would Liverpudlians, whose city is the only city economically expanding outside London, with major expansion projects under construction and given outline planning permission – no other city has such expansion projects. The Liverpool City Region, which includes Chester, has a vibrant economy.
      Mr Forbes you are correct about the out of town Parkways. The problem with HS2 is that it serves “regions”, not cities. The HS2 bosses expect everyone in the region to make their way to Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester to get to London via HS2. Those in Liverpool and Chester, who have Virgin train services, would not travel to Manchester, as it would be far too inconvenient in taking a slowish train to Manchester and then changing.
      WCML Capacity can be increased by taking the needless trains from the Manchester route. There is 20,000 seats per day from Manchester to London and only about 5,5000 used. There is also far too many unused first class seats that can be give to 2nd class. Further capacity can be gained by taking regional services off the WCML and the ECML – by building the odd short stretch of local track here and there.
      People have seen through the con of the poor design of HS2. Week by week it being pulled apart as people look into the real fallout of the scheme.

      • londonx

        It isn’t about one city before you go off on a tangent about Manchester v Glasgow, it is about bringing the UKs many urban areas closer together and to make human capital movement between them as seemless as possible. This is desperately needed. Half of the UK appears to be blissfully unaware of the types of urban behemoths appearing around the world ready to sink us ever lower down the economic tables.

        So we can build off the shelf High Speed rail, that well established current intercity travel standard or wait until everyone owns one of your personal electric helicopters and somehow manages to overcome the terrifying prospects of airspace congestion.

        • John

          “it is about bringing the UKs many urban areas closer together”
          HS2 is about no such thing. It is about bringing Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds (the only cities with direct HS2 stations – Manchester will have two) closer to London. All lines point to London. Even Manchester’s airport is only accessed from the south on HS2.
          If HMG want to help the “North” they would be installing very fast line from Holyhead, under the River Dee, to Liverpool, to Manchester, to Leeds then onto Hull. The Liverpool-Hull corridor would economically take off like a rocket, with the North Sea trade one side and Atlantic trade the other. The corridor has the largest amount of cities in the UK along it.

          • Jonathan Douglas

            Moreover, it only brings the parts of those cities which are near to the HS2 stations closer together. Someone who lives at Alderly Edge is no nearer London if they have to get themselves into the centre of Manchester before embarking on the train.
            If you were to favour Liverpool over Manchester for your HS2 station, it still doesn’t help someone from Chester, or Preston, or The Wirral, because their journey from home to the station is the problem, not the part of their journey when they are actually on the train.
            While HS2 is very exciting, the benefits being stated are largely fictitious and mostly preposterous.

          • londonx

            you are blaming who exactly for inefficient urban sprawl? HS2 which hasn’t been built yet? How strange.

            Would you have said the benefits of building the first railways or say an airport or the motorway network were also fictitious and mostly preposterous because there is always a spoon of faith to swallow in any future investment?

          • Jonathan Douglas

            I don’t understand how you think I could be blaming HS2 for our existing geography, that would be daft, and it is daft to suggest.
            The early railways had lines with many stations and were part of the reason suburbia developed. Frequent stops were not the issue because a passenger only had horses or feet as an alternative (were bicycles viable then ?). If you are piloting your own light aircraft there are dozens of airports, if you want to cross an ocean there are fewer. Motorways had numerous junctions from day one, but HS2 can only have a few stopping points otherwise it ceases to be HS.
            The existing geography of our cities, towns and villages will not be condensed by building HS2.
            I happen to live near the planned Birmingham/NEC station, (from where a branch will go to the centre of Birmingham, to the magnificent, oldest substantial railway building in the world, Curzon Street Station), but not so near as to feel blighted by it, and I still think it is a waste of money.

          • George

            If you could get live in Alderley Edge you could get to London in 58mins from the Manchester Airport HS2 station thats around 10mins away… Your argument is flawed.People from Liverpool and Chester still benefit from time savings and increased capacity with HS2 they’d just join it at Crewe.

          • Jonathan Douglas

            Barely worth replying to you George, it takes best part of an hour to drive from Liverpool to Crewe, and if you had a train to catch you’d want to leave a bit of leeway on that (fastest existing trains from Liverpool to Euston take 2 hours 8 minutes I think) . OK, so Alderley Edge happens to be near a proposed Manchester Airport HS2 terminal, but the point of my argument is not altered at all, there are plenty of places NOT near to proposed HS2 terminals.

          • George

            The trains would RUN THROUGH all the way from Liverpool to Birmingham/London along the WCML just joining HS2 at Crewe. Still a direct and much faster service than present. Look at the wider picture. Of course not every single town in the North of England will get high speed rail but it is the same on the lower section of the line. They will benefit from increased capacity on the WCML so places like Shrewsbury, Wrexham, Lichfield get more services!

          • londonx

            yes and so what? London performs well, so why not expand this London influenced urban area?

            China is about to knit Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Guanzhou together with a convenient High Speed rail line.

            Wake up UK.

    • londonx

      there are only Parkway situations in the urban areas without the critical mass to warrant the expense of a central station. The key cities do have central stations and therefore the UK benefits from merging these key urban centres. The costs are mostly related to building infrastructure in a democracy so you cant have your cake and eat it.

  • Jonathan Douglas

    There may be a need for more capacity in the rail network, but if normal speed rail would be much cheaper than HS2 it would make more sense. Nobody is that bothered about the speed, what bothers people is how easily they can drive to their local station, how cheap the parking is, how frequent the trains are and how expensive. Trains from Coventry to Euston are quicker than from Warwick to Marylebone, but Warwick Parkway has great car access and parking, and the fares are lower, so it is very popular. The money would be better spent on a low speed freight system connecting the big parcel distribution centres which are developing near all the big cities, thus reducing road congestion, which reduces pollution. A better, efficient, low energy consumption way of getting all the products from Amazon and Ebay round the country would be sure to be useful for decades, and would reduce the punishment all those artics give our badly maintained roads.

    • londonx

      what bizarre logic. You really think building a brand new bespoke railway based on the Victorian area is going to be cheaper than building to current international standards of intercity rail? ie High speed.

      Also the whole point of building a new railway is to release extra capacity on existing lines for more freight.

      • Jonathan Douglas

        No, you need some imagination here; what I would like to see is a new, largely unmanned, way of moving shipping containers or similar sized objects between the huge distribution parks which are developing around all our large cities. The industrial park I work on has an average of more than one articulated lorry per minute entering and leaving the park.
        A low speed container handling system could move a huge proportion of what currently is carried by artics between large factories, large distribution centres, etc.
        If the whole point of HS2 is to release capacity on the old lines for freight it simply won’t make a significant difference, conventional rail can’t deal with more than a few percent of the freight movements around the UK.
        In terms of overall journey time, the actual speed of the train makes little difference. I drive from my house to the Birmingham railway station, wait for a train, and then get a cab from the London terminus to an office in London. Unless you happen to live or work very near one of the HS2 stations, your journey time will be just the same, it really is complete nonsense, not high speed at all.

  • John

    In June 2013 a series-hybrid plane flew for the first time, using a small, light Wankel engine generator and a small electric motor turning the propeller. The plane is very quiet using state-of-the-art electric batteries to take-off and land with the engine coming in when cruising, so no noise problems in built up areas. This setup uses far less fuel. The batteries of the planes can be quickly charged while on the ground to make them even more eco. The planes as small airliners are suitable for inner-city airports. It is scalable to 200 seater airliners. The problem with trains is that they are energy efficient when full, but when less than half full they are very inefficient. These small semi-electric airliners would be far more eco overall than HS2. Using small airliners means inter-city transport is highly flexible and no city is left out as the planes and small airports are cheap to build.

    Using these airliners will eliminate the need for super expensive to build and maintain high speed rail lines, as planes use the air which needs no maintenance. The planes could be in shuttles taking off by the minutes. The local shuttle airports will replace the HS2 stations. These cheap short take off planes could take off from small inner city airports with ski-jump runways served by metro rail stations at the airports for direct ease of access. The shuttles could link with major airports for long haul flights. Ticketing with the supporting local rail lines can be integrated. Easy transfer – off the metro and across to the plane.

    The likes of Liverpool near water, could build an artificial island in the River Mersey off the city centre to accommodate a small shuttle airport, with an underground station cut into the metro tunnel under the river. It could also double as a cruise liner terminal. Cities near water can easily accommodate small city shuttle airports near the centres with fast metro access to the surrounds. London already has one with the City airport. Others could be built in London. Rundown Inner-city sites can be cleared in many cities to accommodate the small shuttle airports in other inland cities.

    There are then no super expensive rail lines to build and maintain, just the cost of very small airports with local metro links and buy the cheap shuttle planes. The private sector can purchase the planes and run them and the public sector build and run the small airports and rail links to the them, reducing taxpayers costs. The cost will be a fraction of the cost of HS2 running into every city centre in every major city. Even far cheaper than the existing ill-conceived plan of having just FOUR cities directly served by HS2.

    Technology has overtaken HS2, which will be 80 year old French technology when it comes fully on-line. All it needs is some sensible thought viewing technology advances. HS2 is planned for 20 years time. In that time small shuttle airports can be built and the small planes developed and built.

  • Jon Soars

    Interesting infographic showing a cost comparison between HS2 and aviation.

  • Mark McIntyre

    NO2 HS2 – Heathrow third runway or not !

  • Glyn Gibson

    So let me see if ive got this straight, this article is trying to say that nobody flies between london and manchester so there isnt a need for the train. well forgive me but i am originally from manchester but now live abroad. everytime i travel to manchester i use the flight from manchester to heathrow and it is PACKED, after British Airways contracted and only flies internationally from heathrow there are a lot of flights to manchester and they are full.