Andrew Vine: Scrap the waste of money that is HS2 and fix the North's rail services

LIKE many another passenger on Yorkshire's woeful rail network, I tend to approach every journey with the same sense of trepidation as an appointment with the dentist for root-canal treatment.

Should HS2 be scrapped? Andrew Vine makes the case and says money should be diverted into the North's rail network.
Should HS2 be scrapped? Andrew Vine makes the case and says money should be diverted into the North's rail network.

How painful an experience will it be today? Am I going to make it to a meeting on time, even if I set off an hour early? If so, am I going to arrive flustered and dishevelled as a result of overcrowding? Will the train even turn up?

As a lifelong fan of rail travel, and a firm believer that a properly-run network should be a priority for any government, I find my gradual loss of faith in the trains to take me where I need to go on time sad as well as a cause of annoyance.

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But there is a solution which is staring the Government in the face whilst rail in Yorkshire and the rest of the North fails and lets passengers down.

It’s to scrap the monumental waste of money that is HS2, and instead invest in transforming the existing network into one fit for the 21st century.

The cost would be a fraction of the eye-watering £56bn for high-speed rail and produce huge benefits here and now, not at some hypothetical point in the future.

HS2 is touted as the biggest infrastructure project Britain has ever seen. It would be equally accurate to describe it as the most enormous white elephant that Government folly has yet conceived.

It won’t help commuters in Yorkshire’s town and cities get to work on time, or home afterwards, solve overcrowding, or do anything for businesses on either side of the Pennines which need to recruit from a larger pool of people.

It won’t help the Northern Powerhouse realise its full potential because efficient links between the great cities of the North are immeasurably more important than shaving a few minutes off journey times to London.

When set against the grim realities of the North’s rail network and need for wholesale improvements, HS2 looks increasingly like nothing more than a vastly expensive vanity project.

Just how expensive it could eventually prove is open to question. Last month, a leaked Cabinet Office report estimated that HS2 was likely to go as much as 60 per cent over budget and end up costing more than £80bn.

For good measure, the assessment by the Government’s Infrastructure and Projects Authority described the scheme as “fundamentally flawed”.

That’s entirely credible. It is a hallmark of major public projects in this country that the cost always soars above budget and they are rarely delivered on time. Sometimes problems cannot be anticipated, but in the case of HS2, nobody needs a crystal ball to see trouble ahead.

Little wonder that increasing numbers of Conservative backbenchers are reportedly uneasy about HS2, and the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, has been quietly canvassing opinion over the merits of pressing to have the whole thing cancelled.

He should get on and do exactly that before any more money is wasted. About £4bn has already been spent, but it is next year, when track laying and tunnelling begin, when the bill will really begin to rocket.

There is no sensible justification for allowing that to happen, when a compelling case can be made for simply abandoning HS2 and spending a lot less to produce real improvements to the network that could be achieved long before its scheduled completion date of 2033.

Transport for the North has previously estimated that spending £15bn to upgrade existing routes and lay new track would produce a £100bn boost to the region’s economy.

Now there’s a real return on investment, as opposed to a £56bn gamble with the only likely winners being London and the South-East.

Scrapping HS2 also has the merit of saving £41bn on the scheduled cost, which could solve a lot of other problems.

Britain does not need HS2, which if it goes ahead will be a shiny new train set for transport ministers to play with, attracting all the attention and money whilst the existing network continues to crumble.

We can manage without it. But what we can’t manage without are proper regional rail services that move people around smoothly and efficiently so they can do their jobs and business can prosper.

That needs to be the Government’s priority. Alongside getting a grip of the whole rail system, and shaking up or sacking failing operators, investing in improving the existing infrastructure is the only sensible course.

The Government should have the guts to cancel. Leave HS2 to the realms of computer simulations and glossy artists’ impressions, and concentrate on making the trains run on time instead.