Now that the HS2 cost is being scrutinised very carefully, once again proponents of HS2 have brought out the argument that it is needed for capacity. This is not a new rationale, but gets dusted off every so often, when the other arguments for HS2 are shown false.
However HS2 is a long way from being the only way of increasing capacity. When HS2 was first announced, HS2 Ltd suggested alternative packages of rail improvements, such as RP2. This was subsequently developed into the 51M optimised alternative that was discussed at the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill.
Even the Office of Rail Regulation thinks that there is more capacity on existing railways. In a press release issued yesterday, ORR Chief Executive, Richard Price said:
“Although we are unable to grant access right now, we are putting pressure on Network Rail both to improve its performance and to carry out improvements on the West Coast Main Line so that the question of new services from London to Blackpool and Shrewsbury can be looked at again as soon as possible.”
Even if the proponents of HS2 were right, and the taxpayer should fund a new railway line, it doesn’t have to be high speed. The reality is that long-distance journeys are not the journeys which most rail travels make: HS2 will leave short-distance commuters left suffering crush-hour conditions as the HS2 business model demands £7.7bn worth of cuts to existing rail services.
Looking back to the 2010, the HS2 command paper said that a conventional speed line would give the same capacity benefit as a high speed line, for a lower cost. Then the High Speed Two Limited argument was because the benefits of a new railway came from faster journeys, and conventional speed railways wouldn’t be as fast as a high speed railway, it had to be high speed. In effect they said “we ought to build a high speed line because it goes fast, and it only costs a little bit more”.
However, with the recent price increase, even a small reduction in costs could be a huge sum. HS2 Ltd claim a new conventional speed line is marginally cheaper to build, but if it costs just 10% less to build a conventional speed line, this equates to spending nearly £5 billion less than the proposed HS2 line. As a percentage this might be quite a small amount of the HS2 budget, but in absolute terms it would be a huge saving to the taxpayer, as well as a significant reduction in environmental damage.
Stop HS2 does not think it is necessary to build a new railway. But the people who want a new railway, need to show that not only is it better to build a new railway than to make the kinds of improvements the ORR expect, but they also need to show that a high speed railway is better value rather than a conventional speed railway.
And so far, the case for any new railway simply has not been made.