The last week has been very much in keeping with the high-speed rail project. In Parliament MPs gave strong support for HS2 but at the same time survey results published by YouGov showed that public opinion remains firmly against the scheme. Despite the soaring rhetoric from its advocates the public still aren’t buying it.
Almost half – 48% are opposed to HS2; 30% support it; while 22% don’t know. To the question – do you think the new high speed rail link will have a positive or negative effect on the North of England – 9% said negative; 35% said positive; and 46% said it won’t make much difference. So little more than one in three believe the North will benefit.
Whatever the justification for this vast project supporters are putting forward at the time – and that tends to change, taxpayers understand the fundamental and inescapable fact that it’s them who will be funding the £50bn bill. This total that is expressed in 2011 prices. Applying inflation and interest payments, then the figure could exceed £73bn.
As Cheryl Gillan MP pointed out at on the eve of the Commons vote, the cost of connecting the HS2 stations to the existing infrastructure is not included. There is also no allowance for the cost of property blight, put at £12bn by some estimates. Another significant cost is the work needed at the London end of the line. Solutions such as Crossrail 2 or major underground improvements at Euston will run into billions of pounds.
If the Department for Transport and HS2 Ltd were hoping to find savings on mitigation and compensation, the recent report of the Environmental Audit Select committee offered the prospect of exacting scrutiny in this respect as the project proceeds.
Once HS2 is operational the taxpayers’ exposure may not end there. Fifteen years after opening, HS1 was carrying 9 million passengers a year – compared to the original forecast of 25 million. One reason for this has been the response from ferry operators competing for passenger business. A similar competitive response may be experienced with regard to HS2. The project’s business case assumes fares will not reflect premium pricing. On such a basis, the impact of competition from other train operators may mean subsidy becomes unavoidable.
HS2 is ready to leave the station but the taxpayer rightly remains very reluctant to wave it on its way.