I love railways. It was only the discovery of girls that lured me away from hanging around on station platforms, notebook in hand, in my teens, and I still love the feeling of settling down to a long train journey, book on my lap. But despite that I am adamantly opposed to the idea of a new north high-speed line that is the subject of a consultation paper being published by the Department for Transport today.
I should be cheering Philip Hammond’s efforts to win over his fellow Tories in the Chilterns to the need for this amazing £30bn-plus project, but instead I am booing as vociferously as when the opposition score against my beloved Queens Park Rangers. I have, though, no sympathy for his Nimby opponents either. If the line were really needed, then it is the route through the Chilterns that it would have to take. But where were all these opponents when the motorway network’s tentacles spread across Britain?
No, my opposition is more deep-rooted and principled. Despite my residual railwayphilia, I remain unconvinced that the case for the high-speed line has been made in terms of either the economics or the environment. The ‘business case’ is rooted in the mumbo-jumbo of benefit-cost ratios, and is, even on its own terms, weak. The HS2 report published by the Government last March suggests the benefits are in the order of £2.30 for every £1 spent but, crucially, most of those benefits will accrue to private individuals and companies, whereas most of the cost will fall on the taxpayer. The high speed line to the Channel Tunnel, which cost taxpayers upwards of £6bn has just been sold for a third of that to a Canadian pension fund.
Indeed, supporters of HS2 privately agree that the economics are a bit dodgy and have started pointing to the regeneration benefits of the scheme, suggesting it is the key to reviving the fortunes of the North. However, being well connected is no guarantee of prosperity and the benefits may well flow south rather than north.
In any case, high-speed railways do not necessarily deliver economic growth. Japan built the world’s first high-speed line in the Sixties but has struggled economically for decades, while the United States and Australia, have prospered without them. Of course, this does not prove causality, but it does demonstrate the absence of any guaranteed link between high-speed rail and economic success.
The promoters of the scheme have, too, dropped their argument that it is a Green project, as the HS2 report showed it was pretty much carbon neutral. So what would be Britain’s biggest and most expensive engineering project is being put forward on evidence as flimsy as a Christmas cracker paper hat.
There is, too, I confess, just a tad of nostalgia about my opposition. The French TGV Est put paid to the wonderful but slow Orient Express by enabling faster trips. If we get a high-speed line, train travel will become as featureless and banal as taking a Ryanair flight to somewhere near Brussels or Paris. Please, anything but that.