We've had the HS2 debate before - about the London Olympics

It's almost impossible to be empirical about either project
  • @Simon_Kelner

I don't know whether I'll still be alive to experience the benefits promised by HS2, as it will be 2033 before the link between London and Manchester is completed. The same is true for Sir David Higgins, who has just taken over as chairman of the beleaguered project. Sir David is only a few years older than me, but it would be a desperate shame if he never was able to travel between England's first and second cities in 90 minutes.

Sir David has one of the least enviable jobs in Britain, responsible for delivering a project of mind-boggling scale and complexity on time and within budget. And even before the first pneumatic drill strikes up, he has to convince a sceptical public - and more than a few MPs - that building the first railway track north of Watford Gap in more than a century is probably a good thing.

Sir David did the rounds of the broadcast studios today, fending off the persistent questions about whether the project represents value for money, or indeed whether we need HS2 at all. As he pointed out, national infrastructure projects often bring unquantifiable benefits, which usually become apparent in the fullness of time. In any case, as we have seen thus far, it's almost impossible to be empirical about the projected value of HS2.

The facts, such as we know them, can be manipulated to support any number of views. One man's benefit is another man's waste of money, and, inevitably, it boils down to whether you buy into the grand design or not. In this respect, it's not dissimilar to the debate over the 2012 Olympic Games, a project which ran substantially over budget, for which the sums never really added up, but turned out to bring a lustre to the nation and a number of unheralded economic benefits.

Few people would argue that the country's economy needs rebalancing. More and more of the nation's prosperity is being concentrated on London. The capital is almost sinking under the weight of money that has descended on it, and in many ways is ludicrously out of step with the rest of the country. HS2 will help move the centre of gravity, by bringing jobs to the north and boosting local economies.  “People are thinking about what HS2 is as a railway, but we need to think about what it can do rather than what it is,” said Sir David. “It's much more than two tracks of metal. I think it's essential...as the country has a very unbalanced economy.”

This argument, unsurprisingly, has been met with a good deal of resistance from the parts of the country which don't stand directly to gain from HS2. It is, of course, justifiable to question whether HS2 is the best means to achieve this, and whether this money could be better spent elsewhere to the same effect. But, as we stand, it's the only plan we're being offered, and perhaps we should not be ruled exclusively by the spread sheet. As Sir David said, no voices were raised in protest about the money spent on the Victoria or Jubilee lines, because their indispensability transcended financial arguments. The same should be true for HS2