As Justine Greening MP, Secretary of State for Transport, was nearing the conclusion of her statement on HS2 to the House of Commons on Tuesday 10th January 2012 (transcript) she pulled a familiar rabbit out of the hat:
“I warmly welcome the political consensus on HS2, on the basis that it will help to ensure that the planning and construction of this transformational scheme are carried through to completion.”
Yes our old favourite “transformational” was dusted off and pressed into service. I would like a shiny one pound coin for every time that I have heard or read this word used in connection with HS2.
Now I would be first to admit that there have been some truly transformational developments in transport technology, that have without doubt transformed our lives and fortunes. The construction of the canals was “transformational”, and so was the spread of our steam rail network. When BOAC introduced the first commercial jet airliner service, that was “transformational”, and so was the building of our first motorways.
So will HS2, like these past wonders of their age, be “transformational”?
“Why would it be?” is my reaction to that proposition. All HS2 does is augment existing railway links between a small number of large cities, offering the promise of reduced journey times, projected lower crowding levels and improved reliability. The plain truth is that the existing links are already very good and the improvement offered by HS2 is, it must be said, marginal. Crucially, HS2 has the significant disadvantage of bypassing all economic centres other than the very small handful of large cities that it will serve.
I genuinely can’t see that as a “transformational” proposition. I said so in response to the public consultation, but of course that lone voice has had no impact on the Government publicity machine’s love of the word. However, I was heartened when I found that a much more powerful voice than mine was echoing the same sentiment; the following observations were e-published by The Economist on 7th December 2011 (here):
“Any claims that a rail link will be ‘transformational’ seem dubious: this will certainly increase capacity on the west coast route, and it will also hopefully last a long time and be enjoyed by future generations. But no railway building can be transformational now in the way that the first network can. Britain is already well-served by a dense transport network that needs upgrading and improving, but not, in my view, through spending £32 billion on a single route.”
The Secretary of State was really getting up a head of steam by now as the hyperbolic rhetoric came thick and fast:
“HS2 matters to the long-term success and prosperity of the whole of Britain. It will help to create jobs, support growth and regenerate our regions.”
Now here the lady really was straying into boggy ground. There is a growing and influential body of opinion that refuses to accept these unsubstantiated claims. Even some fans of high speed rail appear to doubt that economic benefits will necessarily follow in its wake. Take for example Lord Digby Jones, past Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry, Minister of State for Trade and Development in the previous government and one of the signatories to a letter strongly supporting HS2. He told The Sunday Telegraph, as reported in an article published on 15th January 2012 (here), that HS2 would not benefit the economy of his native West Midlands. This article quoted him as saying:
“Let nobody in Birmingham think this will boost the Birmingham economy. They are going to have to get used to being the northernmost suburb of London.”
The press appears to be becoming more sceptical with every passing day; to cite but three examples:
The view of The Economist (in an article published in September 2011) is that:
“… in most developed economies high-speed railways fail to bridge regional divides and sometimes exacerbate them.”
The Independent, in a leading article published on 7th January 2012 (here), concludes that:
“There is no shortage of transport schemes – both rail and road – which would more reliably create jobs and boost growth. The vast investment in HS2 would be more effectively spent elsewhere.”
And The Sunday Times in an editorial of 8th January 2012 thinks that the money for HS2 would be of more benefit spent on other transport projects.