Don't fall for the HS2 myth – it's London politicians and businesses that will benefit, not the North

After all, if HS2 was really about boosting the economy in the Midlands and the North, why not complete stage two first?

Will Gore
Monday 17 July 2017 16:20 BST
Various campaign groups are protesting HS2's proposed route between London and northern England
Various campaign groups are protesting HS2's proposed route between London and northern England (Getty)

I spend a lot of time on trains. It is, quite obviously, the downside of being a commuter. Delays, cancellations and a lack of seats are regular irritants, alongside exorbitant ticket prices.

HS2, the long-discussed new railway linking London and Birmingham – and eventually tracking onwards in two directions to Manchester and Leeds – will, on the other hand, be super-fast and have lots of lovely capacity. It will bring the UK into line with the kind of high-speed services seen in other developed countries, both in Europe and elsewhere. And it will bridge the north-south economic divide. The theory is, without question, quite marvellous.

Today we have learned the identity of firms who have won some of the early-stage building contracts for the scheme; dull information for most of us, but these are contracts that will support 16,000 jobs so it matters to a fair few. We will also learn the final routes of the Leeds and Manchester branches, although it is hard to believe there won’t be further battles on that front, especially in relation to the proposed path to be taken by the line through Sheffield.

Still, it looks very much like this project is finally gearing up to begin after years of debate over its merits. If everything goes to plan trains will start to run in 2026; and the cost of the new railway will come in perfectly on budget at £56bn.

However, there are so many risks associated with HS2 that it is hard to know where to begin. First, there is the obvious question of cost. A report in The Sunday Times this weekend quoted a study by quantity surveyor Michael Byng, which argued that the completed scheme could come with a total price tag of more than £100bn. Naturally HS2 says it “does not recognise” the figure, plainly realising that recourse to the world’s worst phrase will convince us all not to worry. There are obvious merits to state-backed infrastructure projects in these times of austerity – just ask Jeremy Corbyn – but ones that go over budget by 100 per cent don’t go down brilliantly with taxpayers.

Then there are the environmental questions. The line will run through areas of particularly beautiful countryside and at the most basic level those locations will be less lovely once embankments have been built on, and cuttings carved through, them. Noise pollution will affect many residents living nearby.

It’s not just pollution of the aural variety we need to worry about either. HS2 is designed to run trains at speeds up to 250mph eventually, saving time for travellers but burning through a great deal more fuel than existing trains. Even taking the shorter journey times into account, and assuming some people will ditch cars or planes in favour of quicker rail travel, claims about HS2’s green credentials are dubious to say the least.

For supporters of the scheme, the most obvious proclaimed benefits are those which will accrue to Birmingham – and later Leeds and Manchester – by the improved connectedness to London and each other. Journey times between Leeds and Birmingham will be cut in half, while a trip to Birmingham from the capital will be reduced to 49 minutes from 1hr 21.

Yet the suspicion among many is that the major consequence of these improved times is not economic growth in the North, but that London businesses will be even better positioned than they are now to consolidate bases – and syphon skills – down south. After all, if HS2 was really about boosting the economy in the Midlands and the North, why not complete stage two first? The suspicion that Britain’s political class (and those who influence it) are London-obsessed doesn’t need much of a boost, but HS2 will provide it nonetheless.

Similarly, it remains to be seen how much it will cost the paying public to actually use HS2. The Government says it expects the line to create sufficient demand and revenue that it won’t need to charge premium fares. But it seems hopelessly unrealistic to expect that it will not cost more to travel on HS2 than on existing, slower services. It may become the preserve of business travellers, politicians and those who are wealthy enough to avoid travelling with the hoi polloi: a handy symbol of societal inequality; on wheels.

In the long term, perhaps HS2 will provide the economic boon to the whole country its proponents advance. I hope it does, not least because I have a soft-spot for rail travel – despite being a regular user of Southern (or as regular as it is possible to be on that benighted network).

Yet it is hard to avoid the feeling that Britain’s railway system has more pressing needs than creating a slightly faster way to get to London. Reinstating the lost link between Cambridge and Oxford, for instance; perhaps sorting out the direct trans-Pennine route; or getting to grips with the disaster that is the aforementioned Southern; maybe building longer platforms on commuter routes to increase capacity for regular travellers; and more generally making ticket prices vaguely proportionate to their value.

A few miles to the east of where I live in Hertfordshire, close to Whipsnade Zoo, a white lion is carved in a chalky hillside. A few miles to the west, builders may be about to start work on a white elephant.

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