The Wiki Man

The most important test that HS2 doesn’t pass

Butterfield’s Law: for something to be called truly innovative, it must markedly change human behaviour

21 November 2015

9:00 AM

21 November 2015

9:00 AM

Despite my opposition to High Speed 2, I am quite a big fan of HS1, the line which runs from St Pancras to Ebbsfleet, Ashford and on to other towns in north and east Kent. I also think HS3 — a proposed line linking the cities of t’Northern Powerhouse — is a good idea.

Why the inconsistency? Well, I believe HS1 and HS3 are significant innovations whereas HS2, though it costs far more and covers a much greater distance, is not. In fact I would argue, counterintuitively, that HS2’s greater length is precisely what makes high-speed rail less necessary: the cost of the longer journey means that most people do not make it very often.

Two years ago, Stewart Butterfield, a Silicon Valley innovator and one of the co-founders of both Flickr and Slack, made the following comment in an email to his colleagues: ‘The best — maybe the only? — real, direct measure of “innovation” is change in human behaviour. In fact, it is useful to take this way of thinking as definitional: innovation is the sum of change across the whole system, not a thing which causes a change in how people behave. No small innovation ever caused a large shift in how people spend their time and no large one has ever failed to do so.’

I think he is right. The best metrics for technology are not engineering metrics — speed, journey time, processor speed or whatever. They are human metrics — specifically the question ‘Will this change what people do?’ It is easy to produce innovations that look significant on paper but have little effect on human action.

Concorde was a case in point: there were only ever 2,000 David Frosts in the world who crossed the Atlantic so frequently that a three-hour time-saving mattered to them. The humble low-cost airline, however, pricing tickets according to demand, has changed the behaviour of millions. (Another unsung success of recent years is the introduction of cheap advance first-class rail tickets, by far the fastest-growing type of fare. These trebled my use of trains.)

Butterfield’s Law explains why HS1 and HS3 might be better than HS2: they change behaviour more. To understand why, you need to acknowledge that human behaviour cannot be modelled using what physicists call ‘mean field theory’. If you assume that human beings are interchangeable atoms, you can simply choose a metric such as ‘minutes saved per passenger journey’ and use that to define success. But if you want to change behaviour, you have to acknowledge that people aren’t atoms. There is a big difference between saving ten people 30 minutes 400 times a year and saving 200 people 30 minutes 20 times a year.

Before HS1, commuting between east Kent and London took over 90 minutes each way — the same as travelling from Bristol. It now takes 56 minutes. A Canterbury commuter now has an extra 250 hours at home each year: this is a life-changing difference, which makes seeking work in London feasible. Similarly, HS3 would make it possible to work in Manchester while your spouse worked in Newcastle. A couple might save 400 hours a year.

By contrast, normal people don’t travel between London and Manchester more than 20 times a year (if you are commuting from Manchester to London, you don’t need a train, you need an estate agent). The prospect of saving 30 minutes twice a month is not a game-changer.

A transport link ‘agglomerating’ the cities of the north is a much better idea. If nothing else, it would mean that the mutual loathing of Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Newcastle might at least be informed by actual experience.

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
  • Greg Tingey

    The usual rubbish
    HS works (VERY WELL) in France, Belgium, Germany, Spain etc, but it couldn’t possibly work here …. …
    ( Reasons are never given, of course, apart from “johnny foreigner”)

    • rorysutherland

      It works as certain distances, and for certain city sizes. No one is saying that Tokyo-Osaka is a bad use of high-speed rail. Likewise if you reduce a 4hr journey to 2 hrs it has large effects. London-Edinburgh might be a feasible use of rail, but for the cost – though air travel would still be a preferable option for many.

      Also commuting tends to spread wealth out from large cities, while at some distances (Seville-Madrid) it seems to such business into the larger city.

      I clearly acknowledge that HS3 might be a good idea. And “Johnny foreigner” subsidises trains heavily while charging for motorways, which rather changes the economic calculation. A hyperloop between London and Manchester would meet the Butterfield test.

      • Swarm of Drones

        Air travel isn’t the preferable option for many, it is the only option for many. The level of air travel is far too high in Britain given the size of this country. One cannot get from London to Edinburgh on a train. The journey time on the continent for a journey of similar diatance would be less than half that of what is on offer here. THAT has got to change.

        • rorysutherland

          On the contrary, I can already travel from London to Edinburgh in just under an hour by train. (It actually takes seven hours, but I am asleep for six of them).

          I make this journey several times a year, and every time I adopt the same approach. Daytime train in one direction, sleeper or aircraft in the other. The same approach I use for getting to Falmouth.

          Here again one of the most important innovations was price-based. Traditionally it was expensive to use the train or the plane unless you bought a return ticket. This made dual-mode travel insanely expensive. Now you can prebook single journeys very cheaply. I find this combination very good: I have never ever used the sleeper in both directions, and very rarely use the daytime train in both directions, but in one direction it is excellent.

          If you are keen on environmental benefits, coach travel is actually the best way of transporting people in terms of CO2/km. Overnight coach travel, if it could be made just a little comfier (Japanese-style pods?) should be developed more for those many journeys where the only alternative to air travel is to travel overnight. There was originally planned to be a sleeper version of Eurostar called Nightstar, but it was canned on cost grounds.

  • LG

    The purpose of HS2 is to extend the London commuter belt.

    • Whatever the purpose of HS2, one of its consequences would be that it would draw the centre of Birmingham within an hour’s commute of central London.

    • English man


  • English man

    No wonder this country is so much debt.. £43 billion. And that’s the lowest projection.

  • If George Osborne’s northern powerhouse is to flourish he first needs to achieve a step change in connectivity between the two big hitters there, Leeds and Manchester. They are only 40 miles apart but a whole hour through the Pennine economic divide by train.

    A mini-HS3, between Manchester Victoria and Leeds, via the M62 corridor east of Rochdale, would cut that Leeds-Manchester rail time in half. Better still, it would join up a Northern Cities Crossrail that drew the eastern and western halves of the powerhouse half an hour nearer each other. HS2 will not do that. See map in:

    • rorysutherland

      Wonderful point. As someone has already spotted, the distance between Manchester and Leeds is only a few miles greater than the length of the Central Line.

  • gmcurrie

    “If I’d actually asked the public what they wanted, they would have said ‘A faster horse'”

    • gmcurrie

      (Henry Ford)

      • But first define a faster horse. The faster horse got the British taxpayer lumbered with the super-costs of, glamorous to politicians and expense account users, Concorde. It was super-fast but cramped and fuel-thirsty and noisy to a fault. They only ever sold twenty of them, all to government buyers I think, and those that didn’t get scrapped are in museums. And it left travel by the wider public untouched.

        At the same time as Concorde, the Boeing Aircraft company of Seattle introduced their 747 Jumbo Jet. It flew the wider public comfortably at competitive prices over competitive distances and it changed the map of the world: Wikipedia reckons they’ve made and sold a thousand of them so far.

        HS2 fans go figger.

        • gmcurrie

          Yes – agree with these points & Rory’s arguments against HS2 – guess I

          intended the ‘old familiar’ (to me at least) Ford quote to be read ironically/sardonically i.e. the great unwashed ‘public’ to be mentally replaced by the small number of vainglorious politicos/fat cat beneficiaries of the HS2 scheme

          – should have added some kind of smiley or something :-)…..

          Ford’s Model T is perhaps a good example of the forward/lateral thinking the article talks about – Ford offered the facility of travel “So low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one – and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces”

          The politicians/vested interests of that era would probably have been urging for the compulsory purchase & demolition of peoples’ village cottages in order to build urgently needed new Coaching Inns & Blacksmiths..

  • Mean field theory is an approximation used in statistical mechanics to simplify the evaluation of the Hamiltonian of a condensed matter system. It is equivalent to taking the infinite demensionality limit in something like an Ising model. I cannot reconcile it with the way that you use the term, which seems to be about treating all members of a population as interchangeable. This is certainly done in statistical mechanics (for pure solids and liquids) but it has nothing to do with being an approximation introduced to make the solution easier.

    • rorysutherland

      You are absolutely right: the former head of research at IBM has just corrected me on this same point, and said that the term is used wrongly, but that the central point is still valid.

  • Jonathan Ellse

    I usually like these articles, but I’m afraid that this is a load of rubbish. The largest market for rail travel to London is Manchester. The number of daily services has nearly tripled since privatisation (17 to 47). Also, under HS2, the London-Manchester time will be 1 hour 8 mins, which is comfortably within what many people choose to commute. This is a saving of 60 minutes, not 30 minutes as stated above. When people attack the HS2 campaign, they cite exaggerated figures as one of the biggest reasons for their opposition. The sign of a true nimby is that he dare not mention any of the real figures. Poor show.

    • Mr B J Mann

      So how many Londoners will commute to Manchester if it’s only going to take 68 minutes?!

      How many London estate agents are going to be advertising their properties as being within 70 minutes of Manchester?!?!?!

      But the biggest question is where have all the comments gone?!?!?!?!!!!!