Editorial: High-speed rail is not the best way to spend £32bn

It is easy to see the political appeal of super-fast rail. The prospect of passengers whisked from London to Birmingham in less than an hour, and on to Manchester in only slightly more, fits perfectly with the rhetoric of an ultra-modern, business-friendly Britain giving hi-tech rivals from France to Japan a run for their money. High Speed 2, linking London and the North, is also an ideal grand projet for a Government wrestling with a languishing economy. The scheme will create jobs, heal the North-South divide, and make the UK vastly more competitive, according to the Chancellor, Deputy Prime Minister and Prime Minister respectively.

What's not to like? Plenty, say those worried for their bucolic back yards. The first section of HS2, from London to Birmingham, is wildly unpopular with many who will live alongside it. After yesterday's publication of the proposed route for the second phase – from Birmingham to Manchester, on one side, and to Leeds on the other – many more will join the fight. Such narrow self-interest would matter little were the economic benefits beyond doubt. Even as the cash-strapped Treasury is set to commit £32bn of public money to the scheme, however, the economic case for HS2 is far from convincing.

There will be little immediate boost, given that construction will not begin until 2015. Nor are the long-term benefits much more certain. Faster journeys may be welcome; but in the age of 3G they are no longer the difference between productivity and time wasted. Studies of high-speed rail links in other countries suggest hopes of rebalancing economic activity away from dominant cities may also be a chimera. Indeed, shorter journey times, and fewer intervening stations, could simply suck more business to the capital.

Then there is the question of passenger numbers. Official predictions far outstrip most other experts' forecasts. And the experience of HS1 – the high-speed line from London to the Channel Tunnel – can only set alarm bells ringing. The service runs well enough, but assumptions about usage were "highly over-optimistic", the Public Accounts Committee concluded last year, leaving the taxpayer with £4.8bn of debt. It is difficult to retain confidence in the modelling used to justify HS2, as the committee pointed out. Yet the rationale for the project remains unchanged.

The strongest argument in favour of HS2 is that it will ease the strain on the over-crowded route between London and Manchester. But even that is not a clincher. It is true that the West Coast Main Line needs more capacity, but it is not necessary to spend anything like so many billions to provide it. Upgrades to signalling systems and extensions to platforms would do much to help, at a fraction of the cost.

In fact, there is no shortage of places to spend HS2's hefty budget, with quicker and more certain results. Britain's roads, in particular, are clamouring for investment, and the timescale for building high-speed rail is so long that environmental arguments are likely to be overtaken by ever-greener cars. No less urgent is the unforgivable uncertainty over airport capacity in the South-east. If the Government must chase glamorous headlines, it would be better pressing ahead with an all-new, four-runway replacement for Heathrow in the Thames Estuary; next to HS2, even the supposedly unaffordable "Boris Island" comes within reach.

This newspaper has repeatedly made the case for both infrastructure investment generally and upgrades of transport networks in particular. We still do. With so much uncertainty as to both the costs and the benefits, though, HS2 is simply not the best way of spending our scant resources. This is no time for vanity projects.