HS2, A High Speed Way to Waste Money

A National Audit Office report has sharply criticised the government’s case for the High Speed 2 rail line. The government persists with the fiction that for business passengers, travelling time is dead time, they don’t work on trains. This is demonstrably wrong as travelling on any longer distance train in the peaks will show. Why else have train companies provided power points and wifi on their services?

It seems the expected economic benefits have been wildly exaggerated. It is, apparently, supposed to regenerate the economies of the north of England. This seems doubtful as reduced journey times to London will ensure that London sucks ever more benefit to itself. How much benefit will really go the other way? Line speed increases on the existing network in BR days led to longer and longer distance commuting. This served to sharply increase house prices beyond the reach of many.

The line will also bypass several large towns and cities so will not benefit them at all. While despoiling their environments. Since one of the arguments for HS2 is to free up capacity on the busy West Coast Main Line, it seems highly unlikely that somewhere like Stoke-on-Trent (the eighth poorest area in the country) which currently has two fast and one slow train per hour to London will continue to enjoy this level of service. I can see it becoming like Nuneaton is now: fast trains only in the peaks and only an hourly slow train during the day. Quite how this is supposed to have a regenerative effect is beyond me.

The journey time decreases promised for the Manchester route are modest for such a large investment, around 15-20 minutes and only 10 minutes for Liverpool. This is not really surprising in a country as small and densely populated as ours. Significant reductions are only possible over longer distances with as few stops as possible.

The report also highlights a £3 billion black hole in the project’s finances. Though the Department for Transport was quick to deny this, its record in running the railways hardly inspires confidence. Even before the recent West Coast franchise fiasco, it had taken to micro-managing to such a degree as to hamper operations. We have the scandalous situation where the platforms at Waterloo International remain unused seven years after Eurostar moved to St Pancras, despite the need for extra capacity at Waterloo; there have been numerous occasions where rolling stock has been taken out of use merely to save money, regardless of overcrowding elsewhere. BR would never have allowed valuable assets to go to waste like this.

The much vaunted domestic services over High Speed 1 are only carrying about one third the predicted number of passengers. This is likely to be caused by both the premium fares charged for the service and that St Pancras is not convenient for City workers. I’m sure HS2 fares will also attract a significant mark up. Furthermore, the Birmingham trains will not serve New Street, the city’s main station, but Curzon Street, not connected to the rest of the network. So passengers arriving there will have to walk to New Street if they wish to travel further.

In short, I believe the line to be an ill-thought out vanity project and a monumental waste of money. If it ever gets built, I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up as another white elephant. If the government really wants to invest £30 billion in the railways, there are far better things to spend it on than this.

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