Inside Whitehall: The British first complain about big infrastructure projects, then come to revere them. HS2 will be no different

Yes, the new railway will go faster; but the reason to build it is not just speed – it is capacity

It was a little under 200 years ago when the idea of a high speed inter-city rail link between London and Birmingham was first proposed. Allowing trains to travel at record speeds of 20mph, the line, its supporters claimed, would provide “cheap and expeditious travelling” and “the rapid and economical interchange of the great articles of consumption and commerce”.

But critics were scathing. Angry public meetings were held along the proposed route while in Parliament one MP declared: “Nothing is more distasteful to me than to hear the echo of our hills reverberating with the noise of hissing railroad engines running through the heart of our hunting country, and destroying that noble sport to which I have been accustomed from my childhood.”

Another said he “would rather meet a highwayman, or see a burglar on his premises, than an engineer”. But the line was built. And the route along which it runs we now know as the West Coast main line.

When it comes to the arguments raging for and against HS2, historical parallels are only so useful. But – putting aside for one moment the relative merits and demerits of the £40bn scheme – it is worth noting that pretty much every single major infrastructure project this country has ever constructed from the Victorian railways to today has faced strident opposition.

The M25, the Channel Tunnel, the Victoria line and the Jubilee line extension. All of them had their critics. But on completion most of the complaints withered.

Take the M25. The BBC presenter Evan Davis recently went back to the village of Ashtead in Surrey where he grew up for the television series Built in Britain. During his childhood the village was at the forefront of opposition to the new motorway – but when today’s residents were asked which of them would do away with the motorway hardly a single person raised their hand.

So what about HS2? The opposition certainly appears to be in the ascendency. What started as a Nimbyish campaign by affected areas has morphed into substantive economic argument against the new railway line.

Those opposed point to how the cost of building the link from London to Birmingham and then on to Manchester and Leeds has ballooned from £30bn to £43bn.

The Institute of Economic Affairs, a right-wing think tank, recently published a research document that concluded HS2 was poor value for money and suggesting that the cost could end up rising by another £30bn.

They were quickly joined by the Institute for Directors, which branded it “a grand folly”. A survey of their members found that just 27 per cent felt the high-speed rail project represented good value for money and 70 per cent said the scheme would have no impact on the productivity of their business.

Even senior Labour figures who once supported HS2 have now changed their mind. Alistair Darling and Peter Mandelson now suggest that in times of austerity we should think again.

So are the opponents right? Is HS2 an expensive white elephant that should be put out of its misery?

Well, no. The arguments in favour of HS2 are just as compelling as they were – even if they have been badly made and badly defended in recent months.

Part of the problem is the focus on speed as the main selling point of the new railway. Yes, the new railway will go faster but that is not the real reason for building HS2. The real reason is capacity. The current West Coast main line is – in non-technical language – full. It cannot take any more trains. Not just fast trains – but commuter trains and freight trains as well.

And this problem is only going to get worse. Britain’s population is due to grow by 10 million by 2030 and our rail and motorway networks are already at bursting point. One way or another we have to build new roads or new railways.

Critics of HS2 suggest we can get around the problem by increasing the capacity of the existing line. But that could not be done without long term closures across the West Coast railway. To give just one example: Network Rail recently announced it was going to shut the West Coast at Watford for five weeks simply to maintain the line. During that period it is estimated that up to 80,000 people a day will have been ferried by coach around the closed stretch. Just imagine the disruption needed to upgrade the whole line. And it wouldn’t be cheap either.

Then there is the question of HS2’s cost. Critics say that the recent £13bn rise in the project shows the Government cannot be trusted to bring it in on time and on budget.

But this is unfair. Most of the extra money is a result of contingency funds being increased to £14bn. HS2 now has a 95 per cent likelihood of coming in either at or less than £43bn – compared to 50 per cent under the previous rules. 

And also this cost will be spread over 15 years. Even at the peak of construction cost the Government will still be spending only marginally more on HS2 a year than it will on updating the road network.

That is not even touching on the wider economic benefits the new line will bring – both in its construction and its existence. It will take lorries off the road, help connect northern cities not just to London but to each other and preserve the advanced engineering skills currently being honed by the Crossrail project. It should also significantly reduce carbon emissions.

It is always easy to find reasons not to do something. But let’s go back to history. If HS2 is built, how many of us will be saying in 20 years’ time “I wish we hadn’t done that”?

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