HS2 is a colossally expensive white elephant. It’s time to scrap it - Andrew Vine

HS2 campaigners protesting in Yorkshire
HS2 campaigners protesting in Yorkshire
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THE next time I catch a train from Leeds to Manchester, I’m not going to buy a newspaper to pass the time on the journey. I’m going to take a copy of War and Peace instead.

Only an epic can help pass what feels like an interminable slog. An hour-and-a-half for the 40 miles between the two cities is bad enough in itself, but delays added a further quarter of an hour the last time I did it.

And then there’s the overcrowding. I was one of the lucky ones who got a seat, but for the latter half of the journey, there were people standing.

Years drift by, and this service gets no better. If it was a commuter route from the Home Counties into London, there would be an outcry, questions in the House and a cross-party consensus that something must be done.

But for two great cities of the North, and those who travel between them, there is no such urgency. Despite everything the Department for Transport insists about improvements, the message to long-suffering passengers is that they’ll just have to grin and bear it.

There’s an obvious answer, though, one which had I suggested it to any of my fellow passengers would have met with universal agreement.

Scrap HS2 and divert the money instead to transforming trans-Pennine links into a service fit for the 21st century.

Our part of the world can happily live without HS2. But it can’t live without proper transport between the towns and cities.

If the civic leaders of our region don’t agree with the notion of scrapping HS2, they need to make a far more compelling argument for pressing on with it than has been the case so far.

Because to anyone stuck on a rattling, outdated Pacer train that should long ago have been scrapped, or despairing at how many hours of their lives are frittered away crawling along on slow services that take an eternity to cover relatively short distances, such as most between Leeds and Manchester or Sheffield, HS2 is an irrelevance.

It’s a colossally expensive white elephant lumbering towards us, its costs already out of control. Sometimes it’s not possible to predict a major project is going to be fraught with problems and produce far less benefit than intended, but it’s glaringly obvious that trouble lies not very far down the HS2 track.

That’s been apparent for some time, and not just because only the most naïve optimist could believe it can be delivered for the budgeted £56bn.

What the eventual cost will be is anybody’s guess. Even the former HS2 chairman, Sir Terry Morgan, made the extraordinary admission that nobody knew what the final bill could be. To embark on such an uncertain venture with public money is irresponsible.

Last week’s report on HS2 by the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee should serve as a warning. It was spot-on in its assertions that costs are out of control and the priority for spending should be poor rail services in the North.

Amen to that. It’s worth noting that this committee includes some of the wisest counsels in politics, notably the former Chancellor, Alistair Darling. They saw past the hyperbole that has surrounded HS2.

Their findings have the ring of truth. Department of Transport appraisals of HS2’s benefits have “fundamental flaws”, are partly based on hopelessly out-of-date information, and “hypothetical questions” put to business travellers about how much they’d be prepared to pay for better services.

But to the HS2 cheerleaders in our region, one finding in particular should have sent a shiver down their spines. It was that the whole project is likely to run so far over budget in the first phase being built to Birmingham that there will be no money left to push it northwards to Yorkshire.

In other words, the very real possibility of the nastiest double whammy for us – no HS2 and no money left for investment in trans-Pennine services.

This needs to be headed off, and a concerted effort made to ensure our region gets the investment in rail it deserves. There was always the likelihood of HS2 sucking as much business out of the region down to London as it brought to the North anyway, and that can’t be allowed to happen either.

There is hostility towards HS2 within both the Conservatives and Labour, because it doesn’t need a clairvoyant to see that the vast cost will outweigh its benefits.

It could be that whichever party forms the next Government cuts Britain’s losses and cancels the project.

If that happens, we shouldn’t mourn and the passengers trundling across the Pennines certainly won’t shed a single tear. We might even grant ourselves a glimmer of optimism that the billions saved by not pressing ahead with HS2 makes it more likely that the services we really need finally get some investment.

Gina Miller is a barrister and leading Remain campaigner. Her tactical voting website can be found at www.remainunited.org.