There is one policy that seems to unite more of the Tory party candidates than anything else. Scrapping HS2 gets a big cheer from the Tory grassroots and several of the candidates for leadership have already expressed their support for killing off the scheme.
Make no mistake, this poses a serious threat to the project is in serious danger. While scrapping the project will waste the few billions already committed, a new Prime Minister looking for cuts will see HS2 as an easy target.
With the exception of Rory Stewart, the selection process for the new leader of the Conservative party is a beauty contest of the Right. The candidates are already, at the time of writing (May 27) competing on who will announce the deepest reductions in the government’s tax bill with suggestions of 1p off income tax, a reduction in corporation tax and various other cuts.
Therefore it is no surprise that several of the candidates for the leadership have HS2 in their record as opposing HS2 scheme. Andrea Leadsom, Liz Truss, Dominic Raab, David Lidington and Graham Brady have all expressed doubts or are adamantly against. Michael Gove is known to have been sceptical about the project for some time and is understood to have discussed the idea of scrapping the scheme with fellow MPs in the past. Amazingly, even Rory Stewart, whose Penrith and the Border constituency in the North West would undoubtedly benefit from the second phase of HS2 has also expressed doubts over the financial case for the scheme.
Crucially, Boris Johnson has got on the anti-HS2 bandwagon and he is by far the favourite to be in Number 10 by the summer. (Mystic Wolmar is putting his money on Johnson in the expectation that his usual hopelessness with the crystal ball will strike a mortal blow for the hopes of the man who gave us the ill-fated Garden Bridge project and the ridiculously expensive new bus.)
Matt Hancock and Jeremy Hunt are exceptions in supporting the project, though both are outsiders and another firm advocate, Amber Rudd, is not standing. Sajid Javid is the strongest candidate to have made positive noises but he has shown a tendency in the past to change his views with the wind. Indeed, I suspect that if there is a supporter and an opponent of HS2 are in the face off of the last two when the vote is put to the Tory membership, then being against will strongly influence the blue rinse and blazered colonel brigade who are not fans of the railway as it gets in the way of their Range Rovers at level crossings. Recent comments from Esther McVey, the former work and pensions secretary, are fairly typical: ‘What the vast majority of the public want is a fast rail link connecting all the cities across the north of England as well as better local transport, not a vanity project whose cost keeps increasing.’
She was picking up on the comprehensive report, published in mid May by the all-party Lords Economic Affairs Committee on Rethinking HS2. That is a very good title as it is the lack of flexibility about the scheme that may prove its undoing. While I have been sceptical, to say the least, of HS2 right from the start, I have always argued that if the scheme were redesigned, notably by integrating it far better with the existing network, there might be a case for it.
The key argument put forward by the good Lords, who include Alastair Darling, who was always reluctant to consider a high speed rail line to the north when he was transport secretary in the mid 2000s, backs up what Ms McVey said. The report analyses in detail the claims that ‘this is a once in a generation opportunity to improve services on the East West Coast Main Lines’ by looking at current levels of overcrowding at peak times at key stations on both lines. The findings debunk the idea that the line is essential to boost capacity as virtually no peak hour long distance trains are full. This, indeed, is backed up by my own personal experience of travelling on peak hour trains out of Euston which invariably are carrying what Darling used to refer to as ‘hot air’. Indeed, the report concludes that the main beneficiary of HS2 will be London commuters travelling to and from places such as Milton Keynes and Peterborough.
In contrast, commuter trains to major cities in the north cannot cope with demands, as shown on numerous TV programmes recently. Timings, too, are terrible. It takes 90 minutes to travel the 75 miles between Liverpool and Leeds, and yet both those cities can already be reached from London, 200 miles away, in a little over two hours. It is difficult to refute the key finding: ‘[The evidence suggests that Northern Powerhouse Rail is required more urgently than High Speed 2. If construction on High Speed 2 had not started already, we would recommend investing in northern rail infrastructure first. Northern Powerhouse Rail will better address overcrowding in the north and improve rail connections between northern cities that are poor at present, in contrast to north-south connections which are already good.’ Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Manchester, has argued that both Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2 are needed, but he clearly sees the former, on which he campaigns strongly, as the more important project. Indeed, with railway finance in the spotlight given the overspending on projects in Control Period 5, in reality there is a choice to be made.
The concern, however, is that the incoming new Prime Minister will cut HS2 without giving any extra funds to the North even though this would be politically dangerous given the discontent in the North over the concentration of spending in the South East. The supporters of HS2, not least in this magazine, should be setting out the arguments for the scheme and looking at ways of reducing costs. The Lords report rightly points out that the decision to have a 400 kph railway has added considerable cost for very little benefit given that the time savings for a 300 kph are not much smaller. That raises the broader point from the Lords report which is most critical of the very basis of the way that the scheme is assessed. The Lords argue, as many other commentators including myself and analysts have noted, that the cost benefit analysis approach is deeply flawed and unsuitable for assessing the scheme. Indeed, by focussing on small time savings, it encouraged the designers of the line to go for this unnecessarily high speed which reduces journey times and consequently increases the supposed benefits. Instead, the report says, a wider consideration of the benefits of the scheme and its place in the wider transport network should have been made.
That’s the whole problem with the project. It should have come out of a detailed study of Britain’s transport network with an assessment of priorities. Instead it was a a political project instigated by Lord Adonis and, rather surprisingly, followed up by the Tories. Much as I am a sceptic, seeing it killed off as a by-product of a Tory selection process that should never have happened will give me no satisfaction, not least because despite McVey’s words, I suspect any savings will simply disappear rather than being spent on Northern Powerhouse Rail.
The lost art of customer service
In a competition for the most inaccurately named part of the railway, let me suggest ‘Great Northern’s customer service help line’.
My wife and I were heading for Peterborough to see Neil Gore’s wonderful one-man play version of Robert Tressel’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, a tale about the evils of Victorian capitalists but my story is about the incompetence of modern day ones. My first mistake of a rather error-strewn journey was to get on the wrong train. I have only done that once in my life before but that was when my mother had just died so I had an excuse. This time there was none apart from the fact that there seemed to be two trains, one for Welwyn and another for Peterborough timed to leave Kings Cross simultaneously. After leaving Finsbury Park, I noticed that we were on the wrong train and panicked. Looking at National Rail Enquiries, I saw we would miss the play if we stayed on the train, so hopped off at Oakleigh Park to go back to Finsbury Park where we might have caught a train in time to get to the play.
But I left my jacket on the train, with my wallet and tickets. Fortunately, we noticed another Welwyn service only 10 minutes behind, and hopped on it. While safely back on a train, I called the help line. After various automatic messages, amazingly I got through to a human being. I explained the situation and asked ‘could you please phone Welwyn to ask the staff to take my jacket off the train.’
No chance. I should fill in an online form and wait for a response. I said this was useless as the Welwyn staff would not get the email but I was told ‘this is the process, I have no way of contacting the station’ – which frankly was clearly a lie. My protestations that, in the time it took to talk to me he could have phoned Welwyn, were to no avail. I was told ‘well what if we dealt with every piece of lost property, we would do nothing else?’. I pointed out that in the days of the much maligned British Rail, lost property was treated as a customer service. I was careful not to be rude to the poor bloke but said ‘you work for a dysfunctional organisation, and you should tell your management that’. Reducing staff to such an extent that routinely dealing with lost property suggests a management more interested in cost cutting than providing a service where the customer comes first.
Actually, in the event, Great Northern only get one barrel blasted at it. The excellent platform staff at Welwyn had checked the train, found my jacket, and handed it back despite me getting its colour wrong! So a big bouquet for the platform people, the real railway workers, and a big brickbat for the company’s helpline service and, in particular, Great Northern’s management.
And there was an even happier ending. Changing at Stevenage, we managed to squeeze into the back of the theatre 10 minutes late and enjoyed every minute of a fantastic performance.