HS2 or the best transport?

Patrick  McLoughlin’s speech yesterday said he would “crack on” with HS2, on the grounds that:

“… we can’t afford not to build it; our competitors around the world are investing in the best transport, and we must too.”

Of course, investment in infrastructure is important, but that doesn’t mean any old plans will do. To spend money on transport infrastructure in a sensible way we need an integrated transport plan, which includes our aviation strategy.

It’s also notable that the latest Secretary of state for Transport makes no mention of countries investing in high speed rail infrastructure – unlike Philip Hammond last July who said

“As countries across the developed world have already discovered, high speed rail transforms journey times, capacity, reliability and comfort for passengers while also delivering huge economic benefits.”

However since then, other countries have discovered spending money on high speed rail does not always bring Hammond’s huge benefits.  As Vince Nolan  said – High Speed Rail threatens Spain’s recovery, says professor – simply spending money for the sake of it, is not a good idea:

“…Politicians of our three main parties like to claim that the UK is “way behind” the rest of the world in investing in High Speed Rail. The Spanish experience suggest that we are fortunate in this respect: we have the opportunity to pause and examine whether the project is necessary, affordable and beneficial to the country’s transport infrastructure – rather than join the Gadarene rush to construction advocated by Lord Adonis and his backers in the rail construction contractors and train operators.”

It’s not just whether high speed rail is the right infrastructure to build, it’s also about the affordability of running it: see Debts and subsidies for High Speed Rail by Andrew Bodman

The ongoing costs of running a high speed rail system are sometimes overlooked or underestimated. In July 2010 a World Bank report cautioned that governments planning high-speed rail systems: “. . should also contemplate the near-certainty of copious and continuing budget support for the debt”.

So in copying other countries to spend money on transport it’s vital that Britain looks at what we have and at what we need. If we are going to cut the welfare budget and spend money on infrastructure instead, then it is vital that the money is spent on the most appropriate infrastructure for the nation, not simply on shiny new trains whose plans are based on shaky projections or discredited sums.

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