The flailing attempts to justify the white elephant that is Britain’s new proposed High Speed 2 rail link (HS2) show that value to the public is always at the back of policymakers’ minds. This was painfully obvious this week when MPs were given their latest opportunity to properly debate the costs and benefits of HS2 during the second reading of the High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Bill. The passage of this bill is an essential step in getting the project underway.
HS2 would provide faster rail links between London and a number of major English provincial cities, including Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds. If all goes to plan, construction of phase one, from London to Birmingham, would begin in 2017 and be completed in 2026. Phase 2 would fork out from this section to go to Manchester and Leeds, with completion in 2033. The overall cost is estimated to be £50 billion, including some allowance for ‘contingencies’. Proponents of the plan have, at various points, suggested that HS2 would be good for the environment, increase travel speeds with resultant economic benefits from saved time, bridge the ‘north-south divide’, and provide much-need capacity on the railways. However, all of these claims are controversial, to say the least. What is needed is a critical look at the claims for HS2 - but we also need a thorough examination of how we can best invest to improve transport, to make travel fast and reliable for all and boost economic growth.
Unfortunately, with the Labour Party having recently confirmed its support for HS2, having ‘had another look’ at the project, the prospect of using the second reading of the enabling bill to have a genuine debate on the issue was gone. What resulted was a poorly attended, routine, even desultory debate. NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) MPs, whose constituencies the line would run through, made up the main opponents to the bill. It passed by 452 votes to 41.
The need for an increase in spending for transport infrastructure in Britain is clear, but HS2 has become much more about burnishing the image of the Lib-Con coalition government’s popularity in the Midlands and north of England than improving travel for all. As such, the constantly changing economic justifications for the project look increasingly flimsy; they’re better described as excuses.
When the HS2 project was resurrected by the coalition government, the modest 23 minutes the new line would shave off the already short journey time between London and Birmingham was justified on the basis that anything that saved even a small amount of business peoples’ precious time was something worth paying for. Yet, as many pointed out, a quick glance at the average inter-city train will find people working away on laptops and smartphones, hooked up to in-train wifi. The argument that journey time is wasted time collapsed under the most cursory of scrutiny.