The problem is that when MPs come to vote, most won’t have bothered to read and understand what is proposed. All they will know is those three words ‘high speed rail’ sound like they must be a good idea. The shining example of what happens when MPs take the time to understand the project is Barry Sheerman. The MP for Huddersfield explained his Damascene conversion: “I started looking at the evidence and research, and rather than bringing life into the regions, it would suck more life out of the regions into London and the south-east. The answer is clear, what we need is investment in our towns and cities. I was a bit conned by the PR that you’ve got to have a fast train. There is a lot of spin, and it’s my job to represent my constituents and get through the spin and look at reality.”
There has been further disquiet in northern England with the leaders of Bradford and Wakefield councils coming out against. Even in Birmingham, a bastion of HS2 support thus far, the cracks appeared last month. The Chamber of Commerce had to hastily put together a press release reaffirming that ‘business leaders’ support HS2, following a survey which saw two-thirds of small businesses in the city are against the project.
Instead of going into detail on the economic case for HS2, it is far simpler to quote the BBC’s economics editor, Stephanie Flanders: “I’ve found it quite hard to find and economist who thought it was a great idea.” Instead of going into detail on the lack of environmental credentials, it is simpler to say that with HS2, you find the unprecedented stance from the Green party of opposing a public transport project.
Harder to dismiss are the criticisms of the government bodies set up specifically to assess public spending and big projects and ring the alarm bells when needed: namely the Major Projects Authority and the National Audit Office.
In May, the Major Projects Authority published its annual report. HS2 received an amber-red rating, which in civil service speak is saying it’s that bad we’re not sure you’ll ever get it right. “Successful delivery of the project is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas,” it noted. “Urgent action is needed to ensure these are addressed, and whether resolution is feasible”. What was missed at the time was this was the third consecutive amber-red rating for HS2, suggesting that the previous two calls for ‘urgent action’ had been ignored.
Ignoring the supposed drive for transparency in government, the intention has always been that the details of these MPA reports should be kept under lock and key for two years. This is apparently in the public interest. Well, that is what the government has been saying for over a year while various requests under freedom of information legislation have come in. Last week however, the information commissioner ruled not only that it was in the public interest to release the reports, but also that the government saying HS2 didn’t have any environmental implications to prevent release under Environmental Information Regulations was simply not the case.
The National Audit Office, another body set up for the express purpose of being listened to in order prevent costly mistakes, has now come to the same conclusions as everyone else bothered enough to study the evidence. Their report showed claims being made about HS2 lack the evidence to support them; HS2 is being rushed through; there is a lack of transparency; and of course there is a black hole in the budget.
The considered response to the NAO from ministers was straight from the playground: “We’re not using out of date data, they are using out of date data.” The data in question is a 12-year-old report which concludes quite clearly that laptops have still yet to be invented, as billions of pounds of supposed benefit derived from building HS2 relies on the rock solid fact that not one person has ever done any work on a train.
Currently, HS2 Ltd are touring Phase 1 of the proposed route for the consultation on the draft environmental statement. In keeping with the sketchiness that has come out of the quango over the last three years it’s more draught than draft, with the wind howling through the holes in their analysis of the affected environment. Nikki Williams of the Woodland Trust commented: “The draft environmental statement is far too much of a draft. The last project we were dealing with was a quarry, and it had a bigger environmental statement than this 140 mile railway. It’s about 50,000 pages short.”
When I put many of these points to transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin, he responded with the only stock argument I hadn’t already knocked down; that other countries are doing it, so we should too. Despite having an eight-year-old son I’d never before felt like coming out with that classic line for parents: “So because Spain jumped off a cliff, you had to do it too?” Even Rob Holden, the chairman of HS1, agrees: “We need to have a good argument for building HS2 in the first place. It shouldn’t necessarily follow that we have to have high speed rail because other countries do.”
The fact completely ignored by proponents of HS2 is that we have had high speed rail, defined as 124mph, in the UK since the 1970s. With journey times between major cities in the UK still ahead of our European competitors, and the fifth most used railway network in the world, we do not need to catch up with the rest of the world. They are still catching up with us. Yes, there is an argument for increasing capacity, but as the NAO found, long distance inter-city journeys for the business elite (and MPs of course) is not where any rational person would chuck at least £50 billion to start the fight against crush-hour conditions.
It doesn’t matter what country you pick across the world, Ultra high speed rail projects are being cancelled, scaled back, bailed out or flogged off, and services cut due to financial problems caused by the grossly over-optimistic passenger forecasts used to justify their construction. A bit like HS1, which by going under the sea at least had the saving grace of being a genuinely new link. The reality is that by not investing in ultra high speed rail in the last few years, the UK has dodged a bullet, but is being lured into the spider’s web by a rail construction lobby with nowhere else to go. When people like Tony Collins, the chief executive of Virgin Trains is describing HS2 as a ‘vanity project’, it is surely time to listen?
But no. There is another MPA assessment due this month, and with the information commissioner demanding the details of the amber-red reports are released, the public accounts committee to debate the details of the stinging National Audit Office report, and a ruling on legal appeals all due for July, the answer for government is simple: get the vote on the paving bill through before any of that happens, whilst trying to con MPs in affected constituencies that if they don’t vote for it, the compensation pot will run dry. The gist of this piece of legislation is ‘the consultants need more money, but we don’t know how much. A blank cheque with no accounts until after the next election will be fine.’
There is a runaway train on the white elephant line. The only way to apply the brakes is for MPs to be responsible, and pay attention to the research and evidence, instead of the spin and the whip. I won’t hold my breath.