A question, which I have often asked myself, and which I’ve formed a solid opinion on…but more about that in a minute.
Earlier in 2012, I posed the same question to my local MP, during a networking meeting, whereby he had presented the virtues of the proposed HS2 rail network.
His response seemed to be words thought up at random, offering no cohesive solid answer – I guess I should not have been surprised, as you very seldom get meaningful responses from politicians, which I surmise is part of their job description.
Not having closure on my question, I thought it prudent to explore the proposal in more detail and draw my own conclusions.
My first thought was the cost. The government have announced that the project will cost £32 billion. Now, and I say this in all seriousness, there is a strong likelihood that this project will be overspent, as it seems impossible for any government to produce or publish accurate project forecasts (you only need to look at the 2012 Olympics for the latest evidence)
If you then account for a 25%-50% overrun on cost, the bill to the public is liable to be around £40-£48 billion.
Given the current (Nov 2012) government deficit is £17.5 billion and is forecasted to increase I am left pondering, how is spending £32 billion (taking the government at its word) going to improve this situation? But that is another debate for another article.
I appreciate the fact that investing this sum of money would generate jobs and thus potentially improve the economy and raise further taxes, a point not lost.
However, Professor Mike Geddes (Honorary Professor at the University of Warwick) is not convinced. On the Channel 4 News program back in January 2012, he provided the following argument:
“All the research shows that the biggest benefits will be to London and the south east so any claims about re-balancing the economy are highly unlikely to be realized. And to paraphrase Clinton – it’s the stations, stupid.”
“The areas around the stations are liable to benefit – but there will be very little for other parts of the country. For example, I live near Coventry. Coventry is not only getting fewer trains to London, it is also liable to lose investment to Birmingham.”
To read more information produced by Professor Geddes, go to http://hs2theregionalimpact.wordpress.com/author/hs2theregionalimpact/.
Seeing very little value in spending such sums of money, especially when cuts are being made elsewhere in the public purse, I thought I would look at each reason given by the government for this project, to see if I could determine its viability.
- Resolve impending capacity issues for both passengers and freight on existing routes
- Shorten journey times
- Boost the economy and create thousands of jobs
In looking at the reasoning, my research has enabled me to provide a response to each point raised.
- The government argued that this new high speed line was “desperately needed” to tackle the “capacity crisis” and “time bomb”, claiming that passenger numbers were growing at such a rate that it will soon be “full”, unless urgent measures were taken.
Capacity was the main driving factor behind HS2, with the then Transport Secretary, Justin Greening, saying that capacity “lay at the heart” of her decision.
However, figures recently released to the High Court have shown this to be inaccurate (government yet again getting the numbers wrong). It would seem that nearly half the seats at peak-time in 2011 were empty (only 52.5% seats were occupied). In fact, the numbers also show that peak-time crowding has actually dropped in the past three years.
An interesting point to note at this stage, is that MPs refused to release this information, despite several Freedom of Information Requests, on the grounds of “Commercially Confidential”. I’ll leave the readers to form their own opinion on this attempt at suppressing information.
In regards to freight, the industry has experienced 13% growth over the last year, according to the Office of Rail Regulation: This growth being bolstered by coal, intermodal and construction sectors. However, this compensates for a reduction in freight for the past two consecutive years, bringing it up to levels of 2008 – 09.
I can’t find any convincing evidence, which demonstrates that the freight network will run out of capacity anytime soon.
2. There is the claim that shorter journey times would be more attractive to business.
This is far from convincing. Most sensible people build into their diary a set amount of time for their journey and plan accordingly.
You also cannot use the argument that you will be less productive, as technology today, alone, enables you to stay in contact with your office, suppliers, partners and customers on a 24/7 basis.
And with Phase 1 of the new line to be opened in 2026, who knows where technology will be.
The exceptionally sad aspect to this is the new line will only save the commuter from Birmingham to London a whopping total of 25 minutes.
3. Boosting economy and creating thousands of jobs.
My previous statements on this have already demonstrated that there is considerable doubt as to whether building a brand new line will improve the existing economy.
In regards to real value for money, the government have recently had to revise their initial assessment (figures again). Originally showing a BCR (Benefit to Cost Ratio), that is economic and social benefits against the public subsidy, of £2.7 down to £1.7, for every £1 invested.
However, if the assumptions in the suppressed report, mentioned in point 1, are used, the benefit-cost ratio drops still further to 1.1, a level defined as “low value for money” by the Department for Transport.
A government report has now graded the HS2 project as ‘red-amber’, given the value for money prospect being so low.
Even the environmental case has collapsed in on itself, with government officials acknowledging the fact that it will only have a fraction, if any, impact in reducing road and air traffic.
It would seem that despite generating incorrect figures, making wrong assumptions, and developing a flawed methodology, that the government are forcing the go-ahead of HS2. It’s like a moth flying into a car’s headlights – you know it’s wrong, but you’re damn well going to do it anyway.
So to answer my question “Is HS2 a viable alternative?” – in short – No.
A more sensible alternative would be to upgrade the existing rail lines. There is the potential to extend platforms, allowing for trains with more carriages. You could also follow the European model with the introduction of double-decked carriages.
- Increased capacity
- Probably a reduction in build cost, especially as you would not need to pay compensation to people effected by any new route
- Installation of newer technology
- No need for green build or environmental destruction
- Creation of jobs
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 Information taken from an article in the Telegraph from 9 December 2012