A government white elephant—or an essential transport link for the North? Our contributors duke it outby Simon Jenkins, Andrew Adonis / November 13, 2017 / Leave a comment
High-Speed Two, the rail development that will connect London to Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and the East Midlands, was never a properly-planned railway. It was a political vanity project “sold” to David Cameron in 2010 as an alternative to a new runway at Heathrow, which he was then pledged to oppose. It swiftly attracted commercial lobbying and became a totem of the coalition government’s infrastructure machismo.
Higher speed is not regarded as a critical factor in rail travel and track congestion is far worse in other corridors into London, notably from the south and the west. While there is always a case for more rail investment, HS2 passed not a single test for priority, whether in the Department of Transport, the Treasury or the think tanks and Commons committees that investigated it.
Since there is no infinite stock of rail investment, HS2’s official total cost of £55.7bn, as set out in the 2015 spending review, can only impede Britain’s dire record of rail electrification, and worsen the poor state of north-country intercity links, both road and rail. In addition, as with such projects in France and elsewhere, better transport draws growth to the more attractive end of the line. HS2 is in effect a massive subsidy to London.
The final lunacy was to bring HS2 into London’s most inconvenient terminus, Euston, where it will actually displace capacity from existing Virgin northwest services. It will need massively expensive tunnelling under Primrose Hill and the demolition of hundreds of Camden houses. When they reach Euston, HS2 passengers cannot transfer to HS1 and Eurostar services, except by walking down Euston Road. It is unbelievable that a high-speed line to the north of Britain should not connect to high-speed services to the Channel Tunnel and the continent. Euston is not even on the new Crossrail line currently under construction. It is on neither the Central Line nor the Metropolitan Line.
The least-worst option now would be to terminate the line at the “Canary Wharf of the west” at Old Oak Common in the west of London, accessible to the M40 and with easy transfer onto Crossrail. Yet this has been rejected—so far—as insufficiently glamorous. This has to be the silliest grand project in British history.
Though a brilliant historian of our railways—your Britain’s 100 Best Stations is the perfect Christmas gift for every trainspotter—when it comes to modern railways, you have a blind spot. You are almost the only living opponent of Crossrail, which opens next year to near-universal support from Londoners sick of congestion on east-west routes. Now you are extending your Blimpish opposition to HS2, where it is equally unjustified.
There is a good reason why almost every country in the world with our kind of economic geography, from France and Germany to Korea and Japan, built high-speed rail lines between their major cities a generation ago. High-speed rail is the highest capacity, fastest and most efficient means of mass transport between cities where traffic demands are high and increasing; and where the alternatives—more motorways or internal flights, or trying to upgrade ancient existing railway lines—is hugely expensive and far less sustainable.
London, the West Midlands, the northwest, and both South and West Yorkshire, are our four largest conurbations, and the same arguments apply. Also, by freeing up capacity on existing rail lines, HS2 makes it possible to run far more intensive metro services in these areas, further relieving congestion, promoting growth and fostering green travel.
The key mistake with HS2 was failing to begin it back in the 1980s. The fact that HS2 has been supported by four successive governments from Gordon Brown’s to Theresa May’s, and by all four of the UK’s major political parties, gives the lie to the idea that it is the “vanity project” of myself, Cameron or anyone else.
Crossrail One like HS2 was a project low on any strategic list for rail investment. Both were advanced for political not planning reasons, Crossrail because it was hoped the City of London might pay for it to forestall the growth of suburban hubs. Both projects suck millions more people into the overcrowded heart of the capital. This bias against dispersal is the curse of the British economy. Of course everyone loves grand infrastructure projects as the money splurges. Dictators have known that down the ages. That does not make them sensible.
You address none of the arguments against HS2, which led every Whitehall assessment to abandon it. Nor do you address the lunacy of bringing it into Euston, which prevents a national high-speed network ever linking to the continent.
As for the case for “high speed,” it is dead. It uses colossal amounts of energy and investment in it has slowed almost to a halt, being nowhere in the United States. As for “freeing up capacity,” a far better investment is in electrification—being butchered to pay for HS2—and in digital moving-block signalling. The latter is coming in across Europe and can enhance capacity. Why did Cameron’s transport department show disinterest? Because it is boring.
As for value for money, I am afraid there is no argument, the mass of goods and people go by road. It may make us all feel virtuous to sit in a premium-class train seat and whizz past the jams on the M1, but it is Britain’s congested roads that deliver the big rates of return just now.
You are suffering a bout of “columnist’s disease”: taking extreme positions for dramatic effect. In the real world, Crossrail is essential to relieve chronic east-west congestion through London and to significantly boost employment and trade across the huge retail and business districts of the West End, the City, Stratford and Canary Wharf, all of which it serves. It is stimulating major low-cost housing growth in Slough and Maidenhead to the west, and Romford and Shenfield to the east.
The key argument for HS2 is capacity. HS2 trebles rail capacity between England’s four principal conurbations centred on London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. Every Whitehall—and independent—assessment found that the only alternative was to upgrade the existing Victorian west and east coast main lines, which would yield only a fraction of the extra capacity at disproportionate cost.
No one besides you is advocating a new north-south motorway to relieve the M1, least of all the environmental groups which you champion.
To appreciate how hard and expensive it is to upgrade a 180 year-old railway, look at the fiasco of the upgrade of the Great Western main line, currently four times over budget and radically downsized. This repeats the experience of the upgrade of the West Coast main line before 2009, which also saw costs spiral and benefits dwindle after a decade of chronic disruption. The task of upgrading a Victorian main line is akin to open heart surgery on a moving patient.
By the way, a high-speed line is being built in the US between Los Angeles and San Francisco, an economic corridor similar to London-Birmingham-Manchester. High-speed lines between Tokyo-Osaka, Paris-Lyons, Hamburg-Frankfurt-Munich, and Milan-Rome opened long ago and are thriving.
Your desire to funnel more employment and commuting into central London—whether by HS2 or Crossrail—is urban planning in the dark ages. Everything we know about the balance of Britain’s economy indicates that prioritising infrastructure on the basis of “predict and provide” is madness. It lies at the core of Britain’s productivity collapse and the creation of dependency economies outside the southeast. Infrastructure must divert growth away from the capital. HS2 does the opposite.
I have nowhere advocated a new north-south motorway. But just as HS2 is clobbering other forms of rail investment in the north, so it is clobbering all other transport investment. When were you last on the M62 or the A14 or the chronic A27 along the south coast? HS2 has never appeared on anyone’s list of transport priorities.
Whether or not track upgrades are over some notional “first budget” is neither here nor there. They are vital. The issue is indeed capacity. Yet you, both as minister and now, ignore the capacity lying unused in the failure to install 21st-century “moving block” signalling, now arriving across Europe. It is obviating almost entirely the need for new lines. To splurge money instead on a new vanity line is like ignoring electricity and proclaiming the virtues of steam.
Central London is the powerhouse of the British economy. Post Brexit, the last thing we need is a lurch into yet more magical thinking that all would be well if we experimented with a policy of starving London of infrastructure in the hope that central London businesses might go to Liverpool instead. Less London does not mean more Liverpool: it means more New York, Beijing and Paris.
It is now entirely unclear what your alternative to HS2 would be. The M62 and the A14 don’t alas, go from London to Birmingham and Manchester. This means they aren’t much use in providing additional transport capacity to the M1, or the West Coast main line, to connect the first, second and third largest conurbations of the country. Without either HS2 or another north-south motorway, there is no policy whatever for servicing England’s principal economic corridor for the next generation.
I enjoy your excursions into history. But I don’t want to live in it. And nor do the millions of others who would be impoverished by a failure to modernise England as it is, not as we might wish it were if we could start again. That’s why HS2 is necessary—learning from the experience of many other countries which long ago built high-speed rail to connect their major cities.
The myth of English exceptionalism is doing enough damage with Brexit: let’s not extend it to transport too.