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

SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Day In a Page

 

i Editor's Letter: Still all to play for at our live iDebate

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering