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Business Comment

Anthony Hilton: We’re making the wrong connections and going nowhere fast with HS2

The high-speed rail link will not actually take people to where they want to go

The Government decided this week no longer to put a value on the time saved by businessmen as a benefit to be delivered by HS2, the proposed high-speed train link from London to Birmingham. They accept that nowadays people work with laptops and mobiles on trains, so the saving of 30 minutes on a journey does not add anything to their productivity.

Actually that calculation was always dubious anyway because in all the fuss about the proposed route for HS2, no one has focused on the fact that it does not actually take you to Birmingham New Street, the station in the City centre that is already so full, it simply could not handle the extra traffic.

You also have to wonder why you would build a high-speed line that does not connect with the existing Channel tunnel line at the London end, the existing West Coast mainline at the other end, or the country’s biggest airport in between. Instead it stops … well no one seems to know for sure  … but in all probability far enough away from the Birmingham action  for most of the time saved  on the journey to be used up in a taxi or bus to take you to where you actually want to go.

A couple of other points. If the Government simply wants to improve the railways, it could invest just a fraction of the earmarked billions in developing block signalling technology. That would allow so many more trains to run on the existing tracks, we might well not need a new line at all. 

However, if the Government wants a high-speed railway because all the other European countries have one  then it would make far more sense to build a triangular link between Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield and weld these into one conurbation that would have the size and clout to be a real counterweight to London. We used to have the most dynamic non-capitals in Europe but they now pale in comparison to Barcelona, Milan or Munich, largely because London has sucked the life out of them.

But most of all, if we are to learn anything from the HS2 debacle, it is that infrastructure  decisions should not be left to politicians. We need a non-political body, perhaps like the Monetary Policy Committee, to think, prioritise  and plan what we need for the long term. Then we might actually get something built.