Tuesday, January 29, 2013


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.

1 comment:

John Tremlett said...

There’s another angle to this Steve. Two angles in fact:
First there is the seemingly ethereal argument for ‘having faith’ in a country’s future and in it’s ability to grow in the future. There’s no doubt that the TGV in France and the ICE in Germany have been one of the factors that have helped to maintain their image of being technically advanced nations. Much the same is true of Japan. China is too large a country to be comparable and simply needs faster communications to operate in the modern world.
Investors have to value a country’s economic prospects, labour force, government incentives etc., but the final decision can be swayed by a country’s faith in itself. We may have attracted Nissan, Honda and Toyota because we are a convenient and cheap (government incentives again) doorstep to Europe, but we don’t have faith in ourselves at anything like the level of Germany and France. That’s why those countries invest in themselves far more that we do. We need to improve this image.
It’s ethereal but very, very powerful!
Secondly there’s the environment. Carving the high speed line through the English countryside is not high on my agenda for opposing the project. The argument against HS1 was grossly overstated and now in the rural parts of Kent, away from it’s motorway corridor sections, much of the time you wouldn’t know it was there.
However, we do need to get people out of cars and onto public transport. For urban areas we just need to look at Paris and Vienna, especially when it comes to pricing and ticketing, to see how it should be done. But for long distances it remains cheaper and more convenient to drive yourself across much of the country. I’ve travelled several times to the Birmingham area using HS1 from Ashford to London and then Branson’s swinging Pendolinos for the second stage. But it’s nearly as quick to drive and certainly more convenient, when you take account of the train changes and waits at stations like Euston, not to mention the tube, or walk, from St Pancras to it’s near neighbour! Taking the train further to Manchester is beginning to be more attractive than the car and the same is true of Leeds. HS2 has the ability to win the day if effectively priced and pricing will certainly be an issue. HS1 is significantly more expensive to London than the older trains and they have slowed the older trains down to boost the attraction of HS1!
It doesn’t seem likely that we will ever see freight back on the rails, after all we no longer have the network or termini and the high volume of trucks on motorways will mean that convoys of driverless cars will remain a pipedream for the UK and much of Europe.
The jobs argument is much more complex and there may be some evidence of the capital cities grabbing the lion’s share. But Ashford has certainly gained from HS2 and was, up to a couple of years ago, the fastest growing town in Europe.
I’m generally very sceptical of research ‘findings’ and would like to know more about who funded it before accepting it’s findings. The classic example was the MMR research by the now disgraced ex-Doctor Andrew Wakefield. But it’s also true of so many issues of daily life: a glass of red wine daily; potatoes, daily quarter aspirin, super massive doses of Vitamin C……………
So does this mean that I support HS2…………………….definitely maybe ;0