David Behrens: It takes a lot less than 20 minutes to demolish the HS2 myths

I'VE done the rail journey from Yorkshire to King's Cross and back several hundred times, across four decades and multiple public and private operators, and there is no-one more than I who would like to see the time of it reduced by 20 or so minutes.

There has been widespread opposition to the new HS2 route through Yorkshire. Picture: Tony Johnson
There has been widespread opposition to the new HS2 route through Yorkshire. Picture: Tony Johnson

“Surely we must have gone past Peterborough by now?” It’s the unsung anthem of the bored traveller, reduced to gazing bleakly out of the window because the wi-fi doesn’t work.

But getting a few of us on to the Tube slightly sooner is no reason to demolish large parts of the centre of Leeds.

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That, we have now learned, will be the consequence of ploughing on regardless with the monumental folly that is HS2, the Government’s plan for a high-speed rail line between the North, Midlands and London.

Let’s be clear what is involved: an HS2 station to serve Leeds would sweep away the Hilton hotel, Asda’s national HQ and scores of other business premises, with the “displacement or loss” of nearly 5,000 jobs.

And that’s just the start. Dozens of roads across Yorkshire would be permanently closed or realigned. Rural communities dependent on shops and services in nearby centres would be cut off from them. The character of the county and the quality of life in countless towns and villages would be diminished for a generation or more.

That is not simply my opinion; it is the admission of HS2’s own planners.

The publication of their 250-page report on the environmental and human cost of speeding up the trains is a moment to stop and consider whether the benefits really outweigh the consequences.

You would have to be a fantasist or a politician, or possibly both, to conclude that they are even close to so doing.

Let’s stack up the arguments on both sides. Against HS2, aside from all the wholesale and unnecessary destruction, there is the colossal £56bn expense. That’s five times the cost per mile of France’s LGV Méditerranée.

In the project’s favour, there is that contraction of journey times. That’s all. Londoners would get to Leeds 20 minutes sooner, maybe more, but would find that 5,000 fewer people worked there.

There are no proven economic benefits; just political pie in the sky and the temporary jobs the construction will create.

And to whom are we proposing to entrust the construction? It would be beyond satire to imagine that the railway industry – the same one whose failure to complete even a modest upgrade to a branch line caused the wholesale chaos that continues to afflict almost every route in the North – could take on a such an ambitious project. For goodness sake, it can’t even clear the drains at Menston’s station.

Yet that is exactly what is being proposed. Indeed, HS2’s chairman, Sir David Higgins, is the former boss of the hopeless Network Rail.

And it’s already plain to see the ineptitude that has defined our railway network being brought to bear on HS2. Its projected cost has risen by fully 70 per cent since the original estimate, and its first slate of contractors included the collapsed and disgraced outsourcing consortium, Carillion.

Every rail user knows where improvements are most needed, and HS2 will deliver none of them. On the contrary, the financial black hole it will create will suck investment out of the local lines on which commuters rely.

It is those arteries, and the regional route that connects Yorkshire with Manchester and Liverpool – the so-called HS3 corridor – that can bring real economic growth to the North, and again, I am not alone in so thinking. The Government’s own watchdog has described the whole HS2 concept as “fundamentally flawed”.

How flawed exactly? On the scale of misguidedness, it’s up there with Donald Trump’s US Space Force.

The argument in its favour proposed this week by Leeds Council bordered on desperation. Increased capacity, not speed, would be its principal benefit, it said. If ever you sought the living definition of using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut, it is flattening half a city to achieve the same effect as adding two extra carriages to an existing train.

So the question we must ask our politicians, before the commitment to HS2 becomes irrevocable and the bulldozers move in, is this: how many steps backwards are we prepared to take in order to move forward by 20 minutes?