HS2 is a solution looking for a problem. Since its conception, HS2 has been a tale of shape shifting as first it was about time, then about bridging the north south divide, then about capacity before we are told it is simply the right thing to do.
The reason the argument is shifting is because it is built of a poor business case which when scrutinised falls apart and reveals a tide of evasive evidence. Take for instance the principle argument when the HS2 scheme was unveiled by Labour. It was that 20 minutes could be saved on the journey time between London and Birmingham. Based on this, for Phase 1, the Department of Transport claimed HS2 will produce £1.40 of benefits for every £1 of subsidy spent. The Government categorises schemes below £1.50 as low value for money and this is before we even consider the subsequent increase in cost and expected further overruns.
These benefit cost ratio figures are based on the extraordinary idea that people do not currently work on trains, which anyone who uses the railway knows is simply not the case. Although this is going to be looked at, it makes you question whether the economic soundness of the project from the very start.
As the argument on time saved started to fall apart, and I would add that I have never met a businessperson who have said the reason their business is not growing is because they can’t get to London quick enough, it moved onto bridging the North South divide.
However HS2 will simply suck money from the regions into London and the South East. For weekend and leisure travel for instance, what is the more likely scenario: That more families will be travelling from London to spend an evening in Birmingham or Manchester, or families from Birmingham will be using the route to spend time and money in London. I would suggest the latter Indeed; there are no serious academics that support the view that HS2 will reduce the north south divide.
Then the argument shifted to capacity. The principle argument the Government are using is HS2 is needed because existing lines are getting full to capacity. However on the West Coast Mainline, passenger growth is slowing down on the route and for 2012-13, passenger mile growth was 0.9 per cent, Down from 20.4 per cent in 2009-10 when the case for HS2 was first being made. The average load factor on the West Coast Main Line is only 28 per cent according to 2012-13 figures with a total demand during the 3 hour weekday morning peak of 60 per cent.
It’s not about capacity, it’s not about the North South divide which will only be exacerbated by this railway line as more money gets dragged into London, it’s not about journey times as connectivity times between London and our major cities is already well below European levels. This is a grandstand project being supported by an unsound business case and a shifting argument on need based on facts that are failing to stand up to scrutiny.
Nigel Farage, Matthew Parris, Rory Sutherland and Cheryl Gillan will debate whether the government should ‘Stop HS2!‘ on 31 October 2013 in Westminster. Click here to book tickets.Tags: Business, HS2, North South Divide