I would like to congratulate Chair of HS2 Ltd David Higgins for his response to Jeremy Paxman, who writing in the FT last dismissed HS2 exactly the same way we have seen his former colleague David Grossman repeatedly do when investigating the scheme for the BBC Newsnight programme. The reason I congratulate Sir David, is unlike the rail industry press and the rest of the vocal pro-HS2 lobby, he has at least not tried to decry a man who lives ten miles from the proposed line as a nimby.
Instead, Sir David produced some facts in an attempt to support his argument. Whilst some of what he said contains things which are factual, like many of the ‘facts’ bandied around in this argument, the real fact is that they do not support the case for HS2 at all.
Whilst it may be true that rail usage has increased in the last twenty years, by far the vast majority of rail usage in the UK is in London and the South East. As such, Sir David tries to pull on the heart strings of those facing chaos at London Bridge and Paddington, as everyone who has been on a train has been on a busy train, which is why ‘capacity’ became the HS2 buzzword three years into the project despite the fact the project is the highest cost option for delivering capacity where it is needed the least, as high end business passengers are those most likely to regularly to take long-distance inter-city journeys.
Euston, the proposed HS2 terminus, boast the second quietest platforms in the capital, with tellingly the quietest being those serving HS1 at St Pancras. Of course that is not to say that the knock-on of what now looks like a potential 20 years of construction at Euston due to HS2 will not be a disaster for anyone anywhere on the West Coast Mainline, but that if you were looking to solve a problem this is the last place one would start.
Sir David dismisses incremental improvement, despite it being shown that these projects deliver far superior benefit-cost ratios to HS2, and of course he ignores the elephant in the room, that ERTMS, better known as in-cab signalling, which increases both capacity and speed on railways has never been considered for the West Coast Mainline. This innovation is due to be rolled out on the East Coast Mainline however, which may explain why it was announced last week that Leeds City Council, North Yorkshire County Council and the Sheffield City Region group of authorities have put £50,000 into the HS2 East campaign, to lobby to make sure the Eastern side of HS2 happens, as of course one of those ‘facts’ is that ERTMS will see the BCR for this part of the HS2 project fall through the floor.
Sir David states that we may want to consider “Why productivity in countries such as France, Germany and the Netherlands, which have invested in high speed rail, is higher than in this country”. As ‘productivity’, which is clearly the new buzzword for the new administration, is a derivative of economic output against hours worked, maybe we could more rightly point to the fact that those countries all have a shorter full-time working week than the UK, opposed to the co-incidence that they have HSR networks as the more significant factor in their output over time calculation? He had the sense not to mention Spain, who have HSR to help thank for their economic basket case status, as they also have greater productivity and of course a shorter full-time week. He neglected to mention that in The Netherlands, HSR had to be bailed out by the state due to the common theme of the grossly inflated passenger forecasts never materialising. The Dutch have now sent their trains back to Italy, and that the French equivalent of the Public Accounts Committee trashed the TGV as badly, and on the same grounds, as Margaret Hodge and her team did here with HS2 in terms of not living up to promises made by those who wanted it built. The final fact to expand beyond the selective suite of facts Sir David put forward on this subject is that according to the ONS, Ireland, Finland, Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg and Sweden all beat the UK on productivity too.
Sir David points to the fact that HSBC are moving 2,000 jobs to Birmingham, and claims this is because HS2 is expected to get to the city eight years after they do. This point of view of course ignores the fact that that bank is considering moving its HQ out of the UK, and either way is selling its building at Canary Wharf as it is simply so expensive, even for a global banking leader, to be there. This fact was always going to be completely missed by a Government owned quango which is based at 1 Canada Square.
But of course the real truth about this project, or ‘fact’ as Sir David would have it, is hidden in something he brings forward, that it will help relieve housing pressure on London. Not since Philip Hammond was Secretary of State for Transport, when he stated that HS2 would put Birmingham in Zone 3 of the Underground, has a proponent of the scheme been so lucid. Forget ‘Rebalancing the economy’ or ‘Creating a Northern Powerhouse’, HS2 has always been about providing for those people who feel they need to work in London, but don’t really want to live there. Whether they end up in supposed ‘Garden Cities’ to be built in green belts near Crewe, Birmingham or Nottingham, they certainly won’t be paying Zone 3 prices. They might be up on the cost of their home, but certainly not on the cost of their train ticket.
Stop HS2 Campaign Manager