Britain’s most ambitious infrastructure project in a generation, the plan to build a high-speed railway from London to the West Midlands, is in trouble. As costs soar, the cross-party consensus on its benefits is collapsing. It must be clear to HS2’s backers, including the Chancellor, George Osborne, that the odds now favour Labour formally abandoning HS2. If that occurs, private-sector investors will shy away and it won’t be built.
As matters stand, Labour still supports HS2, but only just. Lord Mandelson and Alistair Darling have called it a white elephant. The shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, in theory is in favour, but sounds increasingly against, insisting there will be no “blank cheque” for HS2 under Labour. No wonder Lord Adonis, a rare true believer among senior Labour figures, sounds almost desperate in his defence of HS2.
Aside from Labour unease, one problem facing backers of HS2 is that grands projets in transport are not as fashionable as they were. France has cancelled a planned TGV line from Paris to Nice after a crash outside Paris revealed the neglected state of suburban rail lines. AVE bullet trains have transformed rail travel in Spain, but criticism is growing there, too. In Britain, this argument has the potential to become toxic because it is not clear how Scotland, Wales or the West Country can expect to benefit from a high-speed line to the Midlands.
If the objection to HS2 is to be countered, it is imperative to reinforce vague talk about creating “thousands of jobs” with firmer economic data. It is not enough to write off the opponents of the scheme as a mishmash of Luddites and Nimbys. If supporters of HS2 cannot state their case more clearly than they have done, it will fail, and it will deserve to.