It had to happen. The biggest infrastructure project the UK has ever seen was never going to be nodded through without a reappraisal given all the leaks about increased costs and the solid phalanx of opposition within the country’s (just) ruling party.
Steering clear for the moment of consideration of whether HS2 is a railway worth building, the way the scheme was created and its subsequent development have been so problematic that a proper review should have taken place ages ago. This must be a genuine review, one that will convince at least some of the entrenched interests on both sides of the debate, not least because the increased costs, which have now been confirmed, change the balance of the business case. If, as is widely accepted, the cost is now heading for £100bn, rather than around half that, a coach and horses has been driven through the Cost Benefit Analysis that underpins the business case. The fact that evidence of increased costs have been ignored by successive government ministers parroting the line that they had not gone up shows that they were well aware that the already weak business case would be severely undermined by any appraisal.
That is why, too, the review needs to start from first principles. The review must first look at two separate but interlinked questions: Does the UK need a high speed railway linking its main regional cities with London? And secondly, if so, is this the right scheme to achieve this objective?
I had letter published in The Times (it is on my website) the day after the announcement in which I set out a series of questions for the review, starting with one area that has shockingly neglected by the promoters of HS2, the overall effect on the environment. While there will undoubtedly be some environmental degradation on the route, that is a small price to pay if this railway is really needed. After all, the whole motorway network was built on the assumption that it was economically essential and therefore it was worth wrecking swathes of countryside in order to complete it, though towards the end of the process, protests at Twyford Down and East London (over the M11 link) suggested that the era of major new roads had come to an end.
It is, however, the large environmental question that needs to be examined in depth. There was a cursory examination of the greenhouse gases effect in the White Paper which proposed HS2 nearly a decade ago and found that overall the impact would be largely neutral but since then the issue has been ignored. I have always argued that spending upwards of £50bn – and now much more – on a transport system that has no environmental benefit is, today, unacceptable. Government is either taking the issue of climate emergency seriously or it is not.
When I have mentioned this on Twitter, there have been lots of responses which suggest the alternative is building or expanding a motorway, but that is nonsense. One great weakness of the case for the line is the fact that some two thirds of users will be displaced from existing rail services and another big chunk will be new users and therefore modal share of those shifting from cars is estimated at just 4 per cent and half that from air. So the idea that HS2 will obviate the need for a new motorway lane is a red herring.
The second point I raised in the Times was that the reviewers had to address a fundamental question: if the Department for Transport was given, say, £80bn, the new estimate of the cost of the railway, would the current plan for HS2 be the best way to spend it? Now surely even the most avid supporter of the line cannot believe that this is the case. Even if one supports the principle of HS2, there is much wrong with it specifically, such as the large number of parkway stations, the ridiculous amount of tunnelling due to pandering to local opposition, the specification of 400 kph, the failure to connect with HS1 and lots more. More widely, though if that money were available, I can think of lots better ways to spend it particularly if ‘getting people out of their cars’ or addressing the climate emergency were the key aims of transport policy. In particular, £80bn would support the construction of modern tramway systems in every major town and city in the UK, something which has largely happened in France, and one could throw in thousands of miles of cycle lanes, too, in order to create a Dutch style culture that would transform the health and wellbeing of millions of people.
Of course, I realise that the money for HS2 will not be made available in this way if the scheme were scrapped but this kind of exercise highlights the fact that we have never had a proper transport policy in the UK, merely a series of adhoc schemes that are subject to the political whims of the day.
Remember that ultimately the decision will not be made through a rational consideration of these issues but rather on the basis of what is most helpful to Boris Johnson’s short term chances of survival and electoral triumph. That is not to say the review is unimportant. Quite the opposite. It will give a fig leaf to whatever decision is made and the choice of Doug Oakervee, a former chairman of HS2 Ltd, as its chair suggests that a recommendation to scrap the line entirely is unlikely. However, Johnson needs to show he can make tough decisions and that he has the public interest (especially of his Conservative party members!) in mind. Mystic Wolmar’s best guess is watch for sharp cuts in scope, a reduction in line speed, delay or even the permanent scrapping of the eastern section and postponement of construction of the Euston terminus. Another suggestion is the scrapping entirely of one of the two Birmingham stations, one of the daftest aspects of the present design. There will be a much stronger emphasis on environmental aspects, too and changes to the structure of the organisation with a much more hands on approach from the Department and ministers. The decision is very likely to be accompanied with some goodies for the North, too, given that an election is imminent. Total scrapping, Mystic reckons, is just too politically risky at this point in time; there are few votes in it.
The fastest ever U turn?
I do love a good U turn. Politicians or industry leaders who come up with some kooky idea immediately do a reverse ferret and suddenly have to say the opposite of what they said the previous day, and we all have a good laugh.
The one day spat over the Interrail pass was a classic example. On August 7 we were told that the UK was pulling out of both the Interrail and Eurail passes (which is aimed at non-EU visitors) because according to Robert Nisbet, who apparently now has the incomprehensible title of ‘Rail Delivery Group director of nations and regions’ offering the scheme alongside the separate BritRail pass was ‘confusing’. Instead, he said, the best option for tourists would be Britrail ‘which offers two for one deals on 200 attractions across the country and includes the convenience of mobile tickets’. Yes, but for rail travel it meant having to fork out for an extra pass for those travelling by rail in Britain.
Poor old Nisbet did not have long before having to eat his words. The subsequent outcry resulted in one of the quickest U-turns since London taxis were forced to have short turning circles. The announcement caused a predictable outcry, with widespread coverage including much tut-tutting in newspaper editorials. Worse, LNER, which remember is currently state run, mischievously refused to play ball and said it would keep on accepting the passes. Result: instant collapse of stout party. The very next day, in a statement the RDG said that after all, ‘following the strong reaction to news of our departure’ there were renewed talks with Eurail Group, and as a result the RDG was ‘pleased to be able to tell passengers that we have reached agreement and will be remaining part of both the Interrail and Eurail passes.’
Let’s give RDG the benefit of the doubt – it was a clever marketing move. Remember when Heinz announced it was ending the sale of Salad Cream – that sent sales soaring, and perhaps this is the same kind of trick. Perhaps….