Never mind HS2. Britain needs a new airport more

The case in favour of high-speed rail was always more political than economic

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The case for splashing out £30bn-plus on a high-speed train link from London to points north was always more political than economic. While the supporters waxed lyrical about job creation, improved productivity and a narrower north/south divide, their pitch was really little more than a phantasmagoria of whizzy modernity and keeping up with the global Joneses.

Back in the real world, the economics never made much sense. The assumption that time on the train was time wasted overlooked the advent of laptops and 3G. The scheme’s proponents also ignored evidence from elsewhere in the world suggesting that faster trains, stopping at fewer stations, might just as likely suck business into the capital as vice versa. Even the claim that the new route – to Birmingham first, with later branches to Manchester and Leeds – would ease the strain on the West Coast Main Line looked like a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Thankfully, there are hints that the penny is dropping. The recent admission from the Transport Secretary that the price tag has already shot up by £10bn to a whopping £43bn, before work has even begun, has prompted a flurry of backtracking. And if the new-found doubts of the likes of Peter Mandelson, say, or Alistair Darling are of no great practical consequence, then those of Vince Cable (who admitted yesterday that HS2 is “not necessarily something that would pass muster in academic journals”) or Ed Balls (who warned this week that the scheme could not be handed a “blank cheque”) surely are.

Thus far, all three political parties remain committed. Add in the implacable opposition of many of those living along the route, though, and the cracks in the plan’s foundations may yet prove terminal. We can only hope so. To argue against HS2 is not to lack imagination; it is to recognise that so large a sum of money could be put to far better use elsewhere.

From road-building to normal-speed rail upgrades, Britain’s transport infrastructure has no shortage of deserving causes. But our greatest need is for more airport capacity in the South-east. Indeed, it is one of the crowning failings of the Government that, amid all the fine words about competing in the global race, the single biggest opportunity to make a difference has been pusillanimously ducked. Rather than grasp the issue, the Coalition appointed a commission – to report after the election.

There are any number of options. As yesterday’s deadline for submissions to the Davies commission approached, Heathrow put forward no fewer than three different third-runway designs, and Stansted and Gatwick proposed expansions of their own. Meanwhile, London’s ebullient Mayor has been banging the drum for an all-new Thames Estuary hub – so-called “Boris Island” – of which there are also two variants.

All the proposals have drawbacks. But the four-decade stand-off between environmentalists, local residents and vested interests must now be broken. Heathrow is at the limits of its capacity; without swift action, the trickle of business already being lost to Frankfurt and Dubai will only become a flood – draining the lifeblood from one of our most assured economic assets.

It is time to be bold. A third runway at Heathrow would be but a stop-gap; with passenger numbers set to treble over the coming decades, plans for a fourth would be needed almost immediately. The federated model of extra capacity at Stansted and Gatwick is also unconvincing; both planning concerns and practicalities militate against it.

That leaves Boris Island, which has no noise-pollution problems, plenty of scope for expansion and the added benefit of a swathe of west London freed up for housing. The deal-breaker was always the price tag, somewhere above £40bn. Let good sense prevail over HS2, however, and even the most ambitious airport is affordable.

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