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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Election catch-up: Blairites for and against a Miliband victory

John Rentoul
Nicola Sturgeon could have considerable influence over David Cameron in a hung parliament  

General Election 2015: What if Cameron were to end up in debt to the SNP?

Steve Richards
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before