‘All aboard!’ exhorts the email I received last night from Lib Dem transport minister Norman Baker, hailing his announcement of the Coalition’s plans for Phase Two of Britain’s High Speed Rail Network (aka HS2). I’m afraid, though, I’m going to have to apologise to Norman for the delay in arrival of my goodwill owing to what I suspect is the wrong type of investment on the lines.
HS2, we are told, will cut journey times, help the environment, heal the North-South divide and boost growth. Each of these arguments is less secure than the government has made it sound.
A train from Birmingham to London will, post-HS2, take 49 minutes rather than 1hr 12 mins. Reaching Liverpool from the capital will be 15 minutes quicker than the current 2hrs 1min. A train from London-Edinburgh will be 21 minutes quicker than the current 4 hour fast train. I’m sure these modest benefits will be appreciated by those using the trains. But I question if they’re worth £32bn investment.
As for the environmental case, here’s transport commentator Christian Wolmar’s take:
… 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.
Is there any real evidence HS2 will lessens the North-South’s economic inequalities? Very little. International experience suggests that when a thriving capital city is connected by high-speed rail to surrounding cities in the hope of reducing regional inequalities, it is the capital city which receives the greatest benefit:
Prof John Tomaney from the School of Planning at University College London (UCL) said that, given the evidence in countries where high-speed lines have been introduced, such as France, Spain and South Korea, there was very little evidence of reducing regional inequalities.
“On the contrary, in fact the evidence seems to suggest that it’s the capital cities which gain principally from these developments,” he told the BBC. “A very good example would be the Madrid to Seville line in Spain. That line was built in order to promote the growth of Seville. But in actual fact, following its completion, Madrid grew at a much faster rate than Seville. In fact the gap between their economic performances widened. The relationship between Seoul and Busan [in South Korea] is very similar.”
Will it boost the economy? Of course: it would be hard to spend £32bn without doing so. The Government claims that for every £1 spent there will be £2 in economic benefit. They are alone in such optimism. But even if it were right, why focus such a huge amount of taxpayers’ money on this one north-south route? If you’re going to commit to this huge infrastructure splurge, why not instead invest further in the continuing electrification of railways across the country to ensure far more of the population benefits and reduce diesel consumption?
HS2 is shiny and new, and Governments and their ministers love their grand plans. But this is a whole lot of buck for not very much bang.
* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.