Harry Fairhead: HS2 should be scrapped to get regional rail services back on track

Campaigners from the Crofton Against HS2 group, who are fighting plans to send trains through their village, meeting Wakefield Council leader Peter Box at Wakefield town hall.
Campaigners from the Crofton Against HS2 group, who are fighting plans to send trains through their village, meeting Wakefield Council leader Peter Box at Wakefield town hall.
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EVEN the Government can’t even decide why it wants to build HS2. First it was an alternative to Heathrow expansion, then it was about speed, then it was about capacity, now rebalancing the economy.

Each of these arguments has been comprehensively skewered and the fact that the Government has shifted its position so many times is testament to this. It just goes to show that HS2 is a political project, not an economic one.

The high speed design is largely the cause of the inordinate cost of the project and slower alternatives would deliver much greater value for money and would also achieve the desired capacity increases.

Perhaps worst of all, the Government seems to be ignoring the fact that we live in a rapidly changing world.

Technological improvements, things as simple as 4G and faster broadband, mean we often don’t have to make journeys to go to work or to have a meeting.

More dramatically, driverless cars could well be on our roads by 2020. And once there is a significant fleet, their ability to drive closer together and platoon will hugely increase road capacity.

For example, the report on HS2 published last week by the TPA looked at a section of the M40 near Birmingham and found that it would currently be at less than a third of capacity if driverless cars were ubiquitous.

This may seem like something from science fiction but it’s expected that this will be the case by 2040, just seven years after HS2 is expected to be completed.

Even minor infrastructure spending such as modern signalling and re-engineering junctions, longer trains or cutting the number of first class carriages could deliver capacity gains at a fraction of the cost of HS2. The salient point is that HS2 is not the answer if the question is all about capacity.

Creating a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ – a tiresome trope that is hopefully headed for the door – is the Government’s latest argument in favour of HS2 now that the speed and capacity arguments have been debunked.

But even the Department for Transport’s own analysis shows that London will receive the greatest proportion of the benefits, and countless surveys of businesses support this view.

The experience from South Korea, France and Spain clearly shows it is the capital cities that benefit from schemes like this so developing the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ is no justification for HS2. In any case, the benefit-cost ratio for HS2 is extremely poor and has some fairly dubious assumptions.

Firstly, it assumes that nobody works on the train and, secondly, that any journey time saved will now be spent at work. These are clearly nonsense and a lot of bosses are going to be disappointed when their employees don’t turn up a quarter of an hour early but choose to stay in bed for a few more precious minutes.

Besides, there are other opportunities that will deliver far greater benefits for a fraction of the cost. Approving new runways at Heathrow and Gatwick would be a good start. And the House of Lords’ economic affairs committee pointed out that although north-south travel is relatively easy, east-west routes are painfully underserved.

Instead of wasting a vast amount of taxpayers’ money on HS2, we should look to invest in the much more credible alternatives.

Our analysis shows that the total cost of HS2 and related infrastructure could be close to £90bn once other connecting infrastructure is included. So continuing with this project would just be throwing good money after bad at enormous expense to taxpayers.

Those making this argument are falling hook line and sinker for the sunk cost fallacy and we need to cut our losses now. Opinion polls show the public are opposed to HS2. It’s only vested interests and politicians who want it to carry on.

So who (if anyone) will HS2 benefit? The depressing answer is the richest in society. This is because it is the relatively affluent who use rail travel the most. In fact the richest fifth of households use trains almost twice as much as anyone else and four times more than the poorest. Perhaps this is why the current Chancellor, Philip Hammond, in his former role as Transport Secretary, described trains as “rich man’s toys”.

This is especially true given that the main alternative to rail travel, using your car, is subject to the incredibly regressive fuel duty.

So the Government intends to spend £90bn enhancing the lives of the richest in society rather than helping the poorest: not really fair, is it?

All things considered, HS2 will be a glorious waste of money that comes at an incomparable cost. Other countries have delivered high speed rail for much less per mile and yet we seem incapable of replicating this. The argument made by its proponents are quite pathetic and it is time that the Government reconsidered and scrapped HS2.

Harry Fairhead is a policy analyst at The TaxPayers’ Alliance.