So, the Government has now announced its planned HS2 route north of Birmingham.On my facebook status this morning, I said I thought the project was “fundamentally wrong”. What I should have said was that I believe the thinking behind HS2 was fundamentally flawed (this applies to both the first and second phases).
I suspect that the country is pretty split over the proposed project but, it seems, that the project is largely supported by the three main political parties. Many will say that HS2 will transform the current situation where many areas within the UK are economically isolated from London and the South-East.
I’m all for vision and innovation, but I fear that technology might well have rendered the project a very expensive, outmoded, white elephant long before its planned completion date of 2033 (and PLEASE don't think that this means I'm a head-in-the-sand/leave-everything-just-as-it-is kind of person!).
Ministers tell us that the economic benefits to all communities are “pretty compelling”. Mr Cameron has declared that "Linking communities and businesses across the country and shrinking the distances between our greatest cities, high-speed rail is an engine for growth that will help to drive regional regeneration and invigorate our regional economies”.
Over the past few months, we’ve heard arguments in favour of HS2 along the following lines: a) there will be huge economic benefits for the country (including more than 100,000 jobs), b) there is a strong environmental argument in support of HS2 and c) it represents a practical and entirely viable scheme.
These arguments have subsequently been roundly countered by academics and pundits alike.
The Government line now seems to have shifted to use of the word “connectivity” (aren’t spin-doctors wonderful!).
Ministers can airily indicate its projected £33billion cost (originally put forward in the last days of the Labour Government, so who knows how much its true cost will be come 2033) safe in the knowledge that they’ll be “well out of it” by the time it’s completed.
Is it really worth spending all this money so that we can travel at 200mph instead on 125mph?
Who will benefit from the project in the long run? All those living in the north? I really don’t think so – I think the real beneficiary will be London.
Professor John Tomaney of the School of Planning at University College London, who has researched the effect of high-speed lines across the world, said: "The argument that high speed can reshape economic geography has been used in several countries around the world such as France, Spain, South Korea… but in practice there is very little evidence that building a high speed rail line heals north-south divides”. Indeed, Tomaneyn found there was strong evidence the other way, with the capital cities rather than the provincial towns, benefiting from the line. In terms of employment, therefore, the argument in the government's report that the line would create 100,000 jobs smacks of pure fantasy.
I’m all for improving rail transport (although I remain horrified by the constantly increasing fares – despite so many more people using the train… and don’t get me started on “privatisation”!). Stand on any station platform these days and you’ll see LOTS of instances where redundant tracks have removed. Wouldn’t it make more sense to spend money developing the railway infrastructure so that it can better respond to the increasing numbers of users?
I’m afraid I share Christian Wolmar’s concluding view in yesterday’s Guardian:
“Today we have the internet, broadband, mobile telephony and even the possibility of driverless cars let alone more mundane exogenous factors such as oil prices and planning policies that ultimately could all affect demand for rail travel. The variables and what Donald Rumsfeld would call the ‘unknown unknowns’ over a 20-year period are so great that in effect, despite all the pseudo scientific business case methodology, this is all one big punt by the politicians. Yet, despite the lack of evidence to support the case for the line, it has now become part of the political consensus supported by all three main political parties rather like the idea in the noughties that Britain's wealth would be sustained by allowing bankers free rein. And we all know what happened next”.
PS: Oh, and the Government persists in telling us that HS2 fares will be virtually the same as the rest of the railway network (but, hang on, aren’t the current high-speed fares some 20% more than other fares?)… it might be worthwhile seeing if Ladbroke’s will take a bet on this – it could be the answer to all your retirement financial worries!
PPS: just so you don’t think that I’m a “southern softie”, London-Bristol is the same as London-Birmingham in distance terms.