High Speed 2: an impoverished debate

The one thing worse than the UK government’s case for HS2 is the case being made against it.

James Woudhuysen

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As many have pointed out, last week’s report by auditors KPMG, justifying HS2 because of the wealth it may create, is silly. HS2 to raise UK GDP by 0.8 per cent by 2037? That kind of long-range precision merely repeats the kind of spurious scientism of the Department for Transport (DfT), whose ‘business value of time’ cost-benefit analysis, favouring HS2, has been widely debunked.

Yet what’s new with auditors, or indeed the DfT? The labour exploited in building and operating HS2, which will be key to its profitability, is not part of their worldview. We can’t take seriously a bean-counting firm which blithely factors into its forecasts the course of inflation over the next 25 years, as well as the likely sectoral pattern for jobs in 2037. Nor can we take seriously the Department against Transport: over 2005-2012, it added just eight miles a year of new road to Britain’s motorways.

Technocratic forecasts are one thing. Yet the contentions made against HS2 are no better.

First, IT can add to, but never completely replace, North-South physical contact. No Skype call can match the vibes of a business meeting, the taste of a Birmingham curry, or the touch of a Manchester kiss.

Second, to ridicule HS2 for its speed is entirely reactionary. Journey times from London to Birmingham Curzon Street will contract from 84 to 49 minutes, which is no mean feat. Yet if a 35-minute time saving is regarded as of no account, why not dismiss the idea of travel itself? Thus, concerned about CO2 emissions, one critic writes: ‘Yes, it’s better to take a high speed train than to fly. It would be better still not to have to make the journey at all and to have some peace and stillness in our lives.’

Third, the rising costs of HS2 have partly been inflated by opposition from NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) interests – a fact that HS2’s opponents never mention. Indeed, given the opposition of Conservative shire counties, some of the hatred for HS2 is actually NISBY: Not In My Second Back Yard. Government dithering, which includes the ridiculous ‘fightback’ for HS2 based on KPMG-style logic, has further raised costs.

Last, it’s true that HS2 may only cut traffic on adjoining motorways by one per cent, and will do little to cut domestic flights. However, the antis’ trump card – the DfT’s failure to integrate into its forecasts the fact that even David Cameron can use a laptop on a train – is actually the strongest argument for HS2. Until full-scale driverless cars come to the UK, rail is a high-productivity way of moving around.

Japan pioneered high-speed trains in 1964. To reject them out of hand, to let Britain go on going it alone without them – now that really is a ‘vanity project’. HS2 just might haul Britain’s railways into the 20th century. In principle, if not in every detail, it is an innovation to uphold.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester, and blogs on www.Woudhuysen.com.

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