HS2 is one big punt

Let battle commence. The controversy so far over the building of the new north-south high-speed railway line, HS2, has been led by well-heeled residents of the Chilterns who are seen as self-serving nimbys. Now that the northern sections of the route have been announced, the arguments will undoubtedly intensify and broaden out to examine the viability of a project that will cost at least £33bn and take 20 years to build.

Indeed, ministers face an uphill task in convincing many of their own supporters, let alone a sceptical public, of the project’s wider benefits. Let’s take that price tag first. It was first announced when the broad outlines of the scheme were set out by the Labour government in its dying days and is therefore merely a guess with no detailed analysis to back it up. Indeed, the decision announced today to build stations in the centre of Leeds and Manchester, while definitely correct in terms of bringing benefits to those cities, will increase the cost enormously since, as our Victorian forebears found out, that last mile or so of rail line into urban areas is by far the most expensive.

Then there is the gradually weakening case for the line. When HS2 was first announced, it was presented as not only having enormous economic benefits but also as environmentally sustainable because of people transferring from road and air to rail. In fact, subsequently the environmental case has all but collapsed since the effect of the line would be pretty much carbon neutral according to the study by HS2 Ltd, the government body charged with taking forward the scheme, if the impact of its construction were taken into account. The environmental case was fatally weakened by the realisation that few high-speed train passengers would transfer from air. Again, HS2 Ltd found that most users would otherwise have taken conventional train services or simply not made the trip.

That left the business case as the principal justification for the scheme and this has steadily worsened over time as more details of the plan emerged. The benefits are based largely on journey time reductions made by those travelling, but when opponents highlighted the fact that since people now can work on trains with their laptops and mobiles, these savings are largely illusory. Today’s document promises “benefits” of just £2 for every £1 spent, a pretty weak ratio for such a massive scheme, especially as it is based on an unrealistic cost estimate and these imaginary savings.

That is why, in announcing the second stage, the government is now focusing on the regeneration benefits, presenting the line as a way of bridging the north-south divide. However, the evidence that the new line will help reduce divisions between the regions is thin and, indeed, can point the other way, with London being the beneficiary. On Radio 4’s Today programme, Prof 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.” In fact, Tomaney 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.

Ultimately, this whole scheme is a finger-in-the-air job. The Victorians built their railways on that basis, not really aware of the huge impact they would have or, indeed, whether they would ever pay for themselves. However, in the 19th century, the railways were a monopoly and it took almost a hundred years before the car and the lorry made inroads into the railways’ market.

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.

  • Mark Brinkley

    It does seem extraordinary that all three main parties back HS2. There are so many areas of the economy which would make far better use of £32billion. It’s really one giant vanity project.

  • Paul Holt

    Once again, the necessary HS2 map is missing. CW is continuing to carp about HS2 but neglects to say what should be done instead. What is CW’s vision for transport, including road, rail and air?

  • FenMan

    The West Cost Mainline upgrade cost just under £10bn, plus much more in terms of disruption to TOCs and freight operators, not to mention passengers, that acted as a drag on the economy. The upgrade didn’t deliver in terms of capacity or journey times. It’s no way to run a railway.

    Traffic projections show more capacity is needed. Incremental, and no doubt expensive, improvements to existing lines, the WCML included, would be subject to diminishing marginal returns, with no guarantee that the primary objective wouldn’t be ditched in favour of an ugly compromise if and when the going gets tough.

    Building HS2, with the attendant advantage of separation from current lines, makes more sense when viewed in terms of marginal cost over and above the cost and disruption involved in upgrading existing infrastructure.

    It will be a huge test of the resolve of this government and its successors to make HS2 happen. We shall see,

  • Trevor Cornfoot

    That additional capacity will be needed on the WCML from the 2020’s is self-evident, unless all local and semi-fast services are sacrificed, and without HS2 to Manchester we’d have to put up with yet another expensive Mainline upgrade of increasing disruption to rail travelers.

    But lets be clear, Christian is a mayoral candidate for London, so he has an interest in ensuring that the status quo in regional transport spending is maintained – which it wouldn’t be with HS2. Transport spending per head was 166% higher in London than in the North and West Midlands in 2011/12 and there has been a ‘wide and persistent funding gap in recent years’ [source PTEG]. Securing parity in regional transport spending – by increasing the spend outside London – would have substantial regeneration benefits and go

    some way to healing the alarming north-south divide in England.

  • Rich

    The Times had a good leader today. It made the point that abandoning HS2 would basically send out a message that Britain does not do infrastructure, has given up and is simply trying to manage it’s inevitable economic decline. Given that we rely on overseas investment so much (how many UK companies are now foreign owned?), isn’t it about time Mr Wolmar started coming up with some answers to this? I’ve asked this before on this website and not had an answer. What are the implications and risk of letting other countries forge ahead and develop far superior transport systems in the coming decades? How can we remain a more attractive place for investment? How can patching up the existing network cope with the predicted increase in the population through immigration and increased life expectancy? Not building HS2 is the real “punt” here, so it’s about time this was addressed.

    And if HS2 is “carbon neutral”, which means it can move millions of people and millions tons of freight around whilst (and I’m quoting Wikipedia), being “net zero carbon footprint”, how does this exactly does this mean the environmental case has “collapsed”?

    This is the problem with HS2 critics. It’s too easy to just moan about it and demand evidence for this, that and the other with regards to HS2, and then just state “we should patch and mend instead”. It’s like the last WCML upgrade didn’t happen. They want hard evidence for a railway that doesn’t exist, and just ignore the actual hard evidence we have about incremental upgrades with all their cost, outages and failure to deliver.

    I can only assume this Beeching-esque approach to the railways (if a spreadsheet that can’t possibly accurately predict a railway’s benefits doesn’t look right then don’t do it) is the core message of the Mr Wolmar’s mayoral campaign? I’m guessing that would have meant no Crossrail and no Jubilee line extension? Good luck with that.

  • stimarco

    Except that £32 billion isn’t going to be spent all in one go, on day one of construction. Like Crossrail, it’ll be spent over the 20 years of the construction project. That works out at just £1.6 bn. / year. Hardly a massive outlay given how much we spend per year on truly unnecessary crap like redundant aircraft carriers and terrifyingly overpriced manned military aircraft. (UAVs are a much more sensible alternative, and far, far cheaper.)

    And that’s before we touch on things like the NHS and the other social safety nets, which are in dire need of a radical rethink due to the ageing of our population.

    £1.6 bn. is a pathetic amount to be getting all worked up about. Most EU nations spend far more than that on their rail infrastructure as a matter of course and think nothing of it.

    Not that the price tag isn’t stupidly high given the relatively easy engineering – try building a TGV line through the Alps as the Swiss are doing right now to get an idea of what really difficult engineering looks like – but that’s a political problem, not an engineering one: the insistence on endless layers of contractors and middlemen is a particularly British form of lunacy.

  • Dan

    The plan looks pretty sound to me – makes good use of the already blighted M42 / M1 corridor.

    More seriously – we also have to recall that since about 1980 the UK has had no coherent regional economic policy of any substance. Nearly one third of a century. This has resulted in economic problems for everyone outside London and SE in many respects – and different problems for London and SE too of course.

    For those who say this will have no economic benefit for the regions I point my finger at 2 places: Hastings and Brighton – ask yourself why Hastings has major problems of poverty and deprivation and Brighton has a very overheated local economy. I suggest that it is because Hastings to London takes ages, Brighton to London 50 mins.

    If govt had, when they kicked Sheffield in the teeth in the 80s and had no regional plan, for example, built an HS line (with affordable fares) it probably would have resulted in people from S Yorks commuting to London – and that would have broyght wealth to those areas. OK – it’s not a sensible regional economic policy but no party wants to do one of them, they want to leave it to the market – so then you have to react tot he market situation ans this is a good way to deal with that.

  • Dan

    This is a very good point – whilst I don’t personally have a major problem with military expenditure (and govt’s certainly do not) I woke up this morning to hear Radio 4 detailing this story – as pasted from the Guardian:

    The Ministry of Defence has revealed how it intends to spend £160bn over the next decade on new weapons systems, including a fleet of Trident nuclear missile submarines, two large aircraft carriers, helicopters, armoured vehicles, and unmanned drones

    So they want or need £100+ bn in 10 years for equipment with maybe a 20 year lifespan whilst this project needs only £32 bn for what maybe a 150 year lifespan?

    What this tells us that the reason people are shocked by sums proposed for HS lines is that we do so little infrastructure spending in this country that figures like this come across as being impossible to afford, when of course as this point makes, they are not.

  • Dan

    Sorry, this bit should have been a quote:

    “The Ministry of Defence has revealed how it intends to spend £160bn over the next decade on new weapons systems, including a fleet of Trident nuclear missile submarines, two large aircraft carriers, helicopters, armoured vehicles, and unmanned drones”

  • Ben More

    He’s a cyclist – give you three guesses on his vision !

  • Bresm

    Whilst broadly in favour of HS2, I find that a number of major Northern destinations will remain out on a limb. Future services between London and Liverpool for example will leave HS2 south of Crewe and will then have to “trundle” the rest of way along the classic route via Runcorn. Similarly, trains to Warrington will also have to leave HS2 at Crewe. It might help however if, at some point in the near future, the section of line between Winsford and Weaver Junction could be quadrupled, in order to segregate Liverpool and Warrington services, thus reducing times even further.

  • Bresm

    Another point concerns the so-called economic benefits of HS2. Some objectors have said that it will merely be a high speed commuter service down to London for Northerners. It could also be said that there is a danger that Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds will “suck-in” all the benefits of investment and extra jobs, leaving other towns and cities of the North totally disadvantaged.

  • Make do and Mend

    HS2 in 20 years or how about something that would benefit far more people in the shorter term: extra carriages serving all Britain’s provincial rail hubs ? Congestion here drives me into my car and I’m a regular first class West Coast user but the real problems are on feeder services and station to home legs. Hundreds of municipal swimming pools or one big one for the Olympics ? That’s one conundrum.
    Organic growth NOW not in 2033 !

  • Paul Holt

    He also lives in London (supporting your assertion above). But others don’t.