Ethical arguments around HS2

Construction of a new high speed railway line through predominantly rural [1] areas, with stage 1 linking London to Birmingham. Phase 1’s cost is estimated at £19.4 billion [2] and is funded by government.The new line is designed to improve capacity situation in the south-east of the country and connectivity to the north.

Pro HS2 Phase one ethical argument

Problem analysis

The aim is to increase the capacity of the British rail network. In full operation HS2 will offer 35,000 hourly [3] seats between London and cities: Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield. The high-priced line has sparked controversy with the public; a significant amount of the route goes through green space. It is also argued the money could be better spent elsewhere, including existing[4] railway infrastructure, with more provincial improvements. Or further afield in other sectors which could include the NHS. Issues with the line also include how it will affect those who live near where the line is planned to be built. These consist primarily of house devaluation[5], noise pollution[6] and destruction of the local environment[7] (both during and after construction).


Options for Actions

HS2 Limited are already offering compensation[8] to those who own houses where the value has been adversely affected by the planned construction of the line. Proposals have been made for a ‘green zone’[9] alongside HS2, with green bridges connecting both sides of the alignment enabling people and wildlife to safely cross, whilst restoring habitats that have been in decline in post-war Britain. Much of the route will be in cutting or be surrounded by sound barriers to reduce the perceived noise[10] from the line.

Ethical Evaluation

The raison d’être for HS2 is increased capacity[11] on key transport corridors in the UK. This will move people at high speeds between vast population centres, whilst freeing up capacity on regional routes for smaller towns. The end goal being that people from all types of settlements along the London-Birmingham corridor will benefit from an improved rail service, in terms of both speed and capacity. There are also the anticipated economic benefits that come with a world class transport system.

Given the vast increase in capacity at all levels, it can be argued by the utilitarian code of ethics that the satisfaction gained by the passengers on HS2 and the affected lines outweighs the relatively small number of local residents affected by the construction of the line.

It would appear the construction of HS2 also conforms to the consequentialism code of ethics, where the consequences of the construction of the line justify the means required to attain it, this being the improvement in terms of capacity and consequentially economic advantages. Where in monetary terms at least, the disadvantages of the construction of HS2 are relatively small.


On reflection, it could be established that the benefits the new line would bring far outweigh the shortcomings of the construction of HS2. It appears reasonable attempts have been made by HS2 to satisfy stakeholders who are set to lose out on the construction of HS2 by mitigating the negative impact of HS2 (such as hose devaluation compensation, noise barriers etc.). Thus, it could be concluded the process for HS2 has been fit and proper and should go ahead as planned.

Anti HS2 Phase one ethical argument

Options for action

The high price tag may not offer value to money to the tax payer and could be spent elsewhere developing the efficiency of current line infrastructure and rolling stock or on other public services such as the NHS. HS2 Ltd are offering compensation to parties[13] effected by the route although the government ultimately decides the compensation and whether a party is eligible for it. This represents a conflict of interests to the government as reducing compensation reduces the overall project cost which is under public scrutiny.

Ethical action

Taking consequentialism as an ethical framework if the economic gain of HS2 cannot be accurately interpreted there is no solid proof of its future success. Claims of success of a “northern powerhouse” and “stronger economy” are presented by a conflicted government where as less conflicted views from think tanks such as the New Economic Foundation[14] suggest there is little assurance on investment. Despite efforts to conserve the impact on the environment HS2 will still leave irreversible marks such as noise impact and unsightliness.

Liberally speaking these negative impacts limit the freedom of an individual who should be put before the state in a liberal political system where the purpose of the state is only to protect an individual’s liberty[15]. However, this is not the case for HS2 where an individual’s free will has been impinged by the state, particularly in cases where houses on the proposed route could be bought through a compulsory purchase.


Through both a consequential and a liberal framework HS2 should be scrapped. In the consequential argument, the end benefit of HS2 is uncertified thus it cannot justify the means of it being built. In the liberal argument, the HS2 route cannot go ahead as it impinges on peoples’ freedom. Instead it is recommended public money is spent improving existing infrastructure where benefits of proposed investment are clearly defined and their impacts less devastating to the individual.


From different ethical stand points that there are clear arguments both for and against HS2. There are also more ‘grey’ areas, such as the consequential framework, where it can be interpreted as either positive or negative, leaving the judgement much more to the personal morals of the reader. Does the increase in capacity and utility to the users of the line outweigh the losses of the individuals who must move for the line to be built? In a consequential framework is the line a guaranteed success worth the losses or a step into the unknown with no guarantees?
















Group 5: David Roebuck, Greg Dighton, Philip Sharples, Luke Clover

7 thoughts on “Ethical arguments around HS2

  1. People always moaning we have an out of date rail network and then when we try to build modern infrastructure everyone moans because it goes through greenfield. Build it and build a lot more too!


  2. Great article! HS2 will create a period of economic renaissance. Especially for a fast growing city like Birmingham it’s important to consider the benefit of the jobs and infrastructure links it will create vs the backward thinking pragmatism of those who don’t like how it might go through their rural hunting ground estates


  3. A very interesting article – certainly raises some valid points, especially to someone who hasn’t been keeping up with the news on this such as myself.


  4. Interesting article, a pressing concern for the taxpayer will be time. Once construction is underway, how long will it take? Will the issues around compensation delay construction, thus costing more time and more money? Big government projects HS2 shouldn’t become a white elephant for the government.


  5. I find it irresponsible that a rail line gets funding instead of the already-starved NHS. The line will also raise house prices in the West Midlands, making it even harder for young people to get on the housing ladder and HS2 will ruin the Chilterns. It’s a non-starter for me.


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