Folly of a £50bn HS2 project must hit the buffers

You might think that the biggest infrastructure project in modern Britain would have merited a few minutes discussion in an election campaign. Dream on. All three of the main parties decided that the planned HS2 high speed railway line from London to Birmingham, and then — if things go to plan — on to Manchester and Leeds by about 2033 was A Good Thing. Despite living in an age of austerity, they were as one in believing it a brilliant way to blow a projected £50bn of public money. It was left to the UK Independence party and the Greens (who generally love railways) to point out that HS2 is a grotesque waste of taxpayers’ money.

It will not be £50bn of course, because that is just the estimate, and cost controls on public spending projects such as this are laughable.

Overlook the fact that the Welsh Assembly building came in 300 per cent above budget and the Scottish parliament almost ten times more expensive than the original estimate. The first high speed rail link, from London to the Kent coast, cost one-third more than its initially projected cost, the channel tunnel almost twice as much as expected, and for heaven’s sake don’t mention the ill-fated National Health Service IT project.

But let us play Fantasy Railways and assume for a moment that cost is no object. At the end of years of digging and disruption (I live some 10 miles from the proposed line) we shall have a railway service that enables us to get from London to Birmingham 30-odd minutes quicker. This will, apparently, make the country much more efficient.

Enough has already been said about the charmingly unworldly idea in the minds of those at the top of the Department for Transport: that, since no one can do any work on trains, they have to be whizzed through the countryside as fast as science will allow, the sooner to sit down on a different seat to the one they occupied in transit.

Perhaps the new line will, as has been predicted, turn Birmingham into a suburb of the capital, though presumably that will only be for those wealthy enough to afford tickets.

The point that seems not to have been much recognised by huge numbers of the poor saps who will have to pay for this project is that at the end of their journey north, the happy business folk will not be alighting in the centre of Birmingham, at New Street station, but will have to take a 10-minute walk to get there from the planned HS2 terminus.

It is unarguable that Britain has suffered a terrible sedimentation of power and wealth, to the benefit of London and the detriment of points north. Chancellor George Osborne (a Cheshire MP) repeatedly protests his faith in a “northern powerhouse” stretching across the Pennines. Yet to get from Leeds to Manchester on HS2 you would have to travel south to Birmingham and then north again on the other side of the country.

How on earth are we even contemplating this scheme? Perhaps now it has untrammelled power the Conservative party will jettison this Labour party project, which was anyway based on not much more than back-of-an-envelope calculations.

The story goes that Mr Osborne was seized with enthusiasm for the idea when he went to China and travelled on a high-speed train.

His thought — “Why haven’t we got one of these?” — crossed my own mind briefly when I travelled on a very fast train from Beijing to Tianjin. Mercifully for everyone, I am not the chancellor of the exchequer. We must be thankful that Mr Osborne did not go to Venice and ride in a gondola.

There are, incidentally, one or two minor differences between China and England, such as landmass, rate of economic growth and, critically, a gerontocracy running things which does not need to worry about people’s rights.

Britain, by contrast, is notorious for its shuddering transport policy. When was the last time you heard an MP say, “I’m begging the prime minister to let me go to the Department for Transport and stay there forever, so we can get this country moving properly”? Building a decent infrastructure is serious, unglamorous work with little political dividend, so our system is hopeless at long-term planning. David Cameron, the prime minister, has reappointed Patrick McLoughlin as transport minister to see through this hugely costly project that has been largely overlooked in the public scrap between Heathrow and Gatwick over where London’s next runway will be built (if it is built at all).

For most of the postwar years, the Department (or Ministry) for (or of) Transport — changing nameplates is a lot easier than building railways — was a department that ministers travelled through on their way somewhere else. Between 1947 and the 2015 election there were by my count 38 different politicians at its head — an average stay of less than two years. Since major transport projects take well over a decade to plan and implement, it is indeed no way to run a railroad.

Instead, we have a perpetual tugging of the forelock to countries such as France, where the state can merely decree that something must happen for dissent to be ignored. It is like admiring 1930s Germany for expanding the autobahn network.

On the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta it would be a great deal more dignified to acknowledge the glories of a system that requires government to take account of its citizens’ back gardens. The need for endless planning hoopla is something we should celebrate, not denigrate.

But an obsession with leaving a 21st century “legacy” by embracing 19th century technology will not be balked. The line offers the promise of overcoming the emptiness of most human achievement.

Politicians are correct in assuming that future generations will not remember a single line of their speeches. But unless someone comes to their senses soon, future generations will definitely be able to look at great tracts of concrete laid across the countryside to enable a slightly quicker journey through our overcrowded island. More than likely, they will still be paying for it.

The writer is an FT contributing editor


Letters in response to this column:

The great HS2 debate must consider connectivity, not just costs / From Anthony Quayle

HS2 will be the first step in providing robust links to the north / From Oliver Budd

The key ingredient is about connectivity across the UK / From Lord Rooker

Upgrading rail network will boost productivity / From Sir David Higgins

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