Mandelson: HS2’s ‘sheer cost will suck the very lifeblood’ out of the rail system

Peter Mandelson’s speech in the House of Lords on Thursday 24th October. From Hansard.

24 Oct 2013 : Column 1227 – 2.46 pm

Lord Mandelson (Lab): My Lords, I strongly welcome this debate and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. Like my noble friend who has just spoken, I have been an ardent pro-railway supporter all my adult life but it is precisely for that reason that I do not support HS2, because its sheer cost will suck the very lifeblood out of the rest of the country’s rail system.

Originally in government, I, along with my colleagues, took the default position in favour of anything with an engine at its beginning, a guard’s van at the back and a lot of sleek carriages planned in between. However, I think that the Labour Front Bench is now right to have become more sceptical of the project. I am not going to dwell on how we reached that decision as a government but, frankly, there was too much of the argument that if everyone else has a high-speed train we should have one too—regardless of need, costs or alternatives. As a party, to be frank, we did not feel like being trumped by the zeal of the then Opposition’s support for the high-speed train. If anything, we wanted to upstage them.

Since then, I have had a lot of time to think about this decision and to face the fact that no empirical case has been established for HS2, despite repeated attempts. The so-called business case, when the original justification for HS2 was all about speed, duly collapsed under scrutiny when it was discovered that in real life people actually work on trains, and sometimes even better than when they are in the office. Now the whole justification has shifted to assumptions about increased overall capacity, reduced crowding and the economic benefits to a handful of the nation’s cities—none of which assumptions, I might say, have been authoritatively quantified or verified, academically or otherwise. They all depend on forward projections of passenger loads which are uncertain, famously unreliable and greatly affected by the future price of tickets and elasticity of demand.

What has been forgotten in all this debate is that in 2006 the then Labour Government asked Rod Eddington to undertake one of the most comprehensive studies ever of transport in the UK. That study, after a great deal of very thorough examination, firmly rejected HS2. Eddington concluded that Britain’s transport infrastructure needs would be much better met by a wide range of incremental improvements rather than a few high-profile extravagances. He ended with one very important point of wisdom:

“The risk is that transport policy can become the pursuit of icons”.

I fear that HS2 has become precisely that—a political trophy project, justified, on flimsy evidence, as being about modernity and prosperity, with, I might say, a lot of pressure being put on those conducting the cost-benefit analysis to come up with the answer that Ministers want.

Even so, I would be prepared to put up with a lot of the uncertainties of the case if I thought that HS2 stood a reasonable chance of helping to rebalance the UK economy, lifting regional growth and creating jobs outside London and the south-east, but there is absolutely no conclusive evidence that any such things will happen. It might give some short-term boost to

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those cities on the line of the route but, equally, the easier you make it to get to London, the more people are likely to end up working and living in London. The readier the access to the facilities provided in the capital, the greater the likelihood that facilities in provincial cities will be undermined.

It is not surprising that KPMG, on a closer examination of its research—as the BBC did last week—found some very patchy results indeed for the benefits of HS2 for the regions. More places stand to lose than gain from HS2. That is hardly surprising. Indeed, £50 billion spent on HS2 is £50 billion—or anything like it, for that matter—that will not be spent on upgrading the east coast main line, which serves Humberside, Teesside and the north-east, and on lines to Bristol and the south-west or to East Anglia. Importantly, it will not be spent on the links between cities outside London. This is something on which we need to focus.

Having represented a constituency in the north, and now having the privilege to serve as the high steward of Kingston upon Hull, I know the difficulties that people have in using public transport not just between conurbations outside London but into and out of any northern city, and in particular in getting to a job within any extended travel-to-work area outside London when depending on public transport. There are literally dozens of rail and public transport projects urgently needed across the country that would make a significant economic and social impact. All these and more could be extracted for the price tag of HS2.

I will say one last word on the capacity arguments that, it is claimed, will be magically solved by HS2. Rail demand may increase substantially or it may not. However, we know that if HS2 goes ahead, the economic case put forward—

Lord Lea of Crondall (Lab): My Lords—

Lord Mandelson: I would like to continue, but I will give way to the noble Lord.

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, it is a question of clarification of what the noble Lord has just said. Does he think it a normal part of cost-benefit analysis on a project to say that you count against it? For example, can you say that if it does not go to Cambridge that is a cost to the project? Is that the noble Lord’s view on how cost-benefit analysis is normally done?

Lord Mandelson: Yes, of course it is part of it. However, my point is that the Government’s own economic case, if HS2 goes ahead, has made clear that this will involve nearly £8 billion worth of cuts to existing intercity services. That means, for example, that Coventry’s services to London will be cut from three to two per hour, Stoke’s from two to one per hour and Stockport’s from three to one per hour. All Wilmslow’s intercity services to London will be axed, and journey times from Oxenholme, Penrith and Carlisle to London will be lengthened. So much for the capacity case for HS2. If it goes ahead, we will see a shrinking of the rail network in this country, and that should be the very last thing that pro-rail supporters in this House should want to see.

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