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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.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.


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