HS2: the need for high speed

Russell McCarthy

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Topics Science & Tech

Plans for the High Speed 2 rail network came under attack this week in a report by a free-market think tank, the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA). The report claimed that the project – which will eventually link London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds – may cost twice as much as the government has suggested, coming in at a cool £80 billion. The report also suggests that the money would be better spent improving local transport infrastructure. The IEA’s new costing is based in part on concerns that cities that are not directly on the new network, such as Liverpool, will demand an improvement of their own rail infrastructure to allow them to access the high-speed line.

Alison Munro, CEO of HS2, called the cost projections by the IEA ‘absurd’. She said that the current figure already incorporated £14 billion for unforeseen costs that may arise. At the current projection of £42 billion, the project will cost every person in the UK about £33 per year until the scheduled completion of phase two, due in 2033 (1). This figure does not take into account the fares that will be generated once the routes are operational or the tens of thousands of jobs that will be created as a result of the project.

The IEA report considers the demands of outlying areas who wish to prosper from a better rail network to be a major problem. The report states: ‘Another risk is that cities not on the HS2 route will campaign successfully for faster rail links to connect them to the line.’ Far from being a risk, an integrated high-speed railway that reaches every corner of Britain should be the long-term aspiration underlying the current improvements to the network. However, until we have taken the preliminary step of linking our four largest urban centres, it is pointless to discuss a broader network. Even when both phases are completed, the UK will have a mere 330 miles of high-speed line, placing it far behind other developed nations such as Japan, which already has about 1,500 miles of high-speed rail with plans for far more.

If the Victorians had applied such cold cost-benefit analysis to the building of new infrastructure, it is unlikely that we would have much of our current rail network, tube system, bridges and grand municipal buildings that we still benefit from. In the 1850s, the great civil engineer Joeseph Bazalgette constructed the London sewer system, which is still in use today despite a much larger population. He famously designed it to cope with more than four times the volume of effluent that was then produced by the city. In defence of the immense cost of the project he said: ‘Well, we’re only going to do this once and there’s always the unforeseen’, and so it has proved.

Today, a person with Bazalgette’s great foresight would be met with ridicule. The panic about the cost of the HS2 project speaks to the shortsightedness that plagues current attitudes to big infrastructure. The construction of millions of badly needed houses, a new reservoir for the south-east of England and high-speed rail are all attacked on the grounds that they will not provide instant gratification to the taxpayer. By reducing the debate to one of value for money, we ignore the real issue: the contemporary lack of faith in humanity’s ability to overcome the obstacles, economic or physical, that stand in the way of progress.

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