Futurology is a cursed science, but just occasionally I feel I can already write a news story years into the future. Watch out about the year 2040 for a headline: ‘Building HS2 wasn’t worth it, ministers admit.’ It gave a us a gleaming new Euston station, it will go on to say, and regenerated the once depressing Euston Road into a desirable suburb. But as for the rest of the country? There are a few signs of regeneration at one or two points along the route, but there is really not much to see.
How can I be so sure? Because, swap Euston for St Pancras and HS2 for HS1 and that is exactly the conclusion of a report published quietly by the government on Thursday analysing the cost and benefits of the high-speed line from St Pancras to the mouth of the Channel Tunnel. When it was being built, of course, it was something the country simply couldn’t do without, not if we wanted to be competitive in the 21st century. But the conclusion of W S Atkins, the consultants who produced the HS1 report? It will cost the taxpayer £5.9 billion more than it gives back over the course of 60 years.
There are a few signs of real estate regeneration in North Kent, Thanet and Ashford as a result of HS1, the report says, but they are at an ‘early stage’ and are ‘not significant to date’. There was little evidence of an increase in employment in East Kent. As for the King’s Cross and St Pancras area, however, it is doing swimmingly as new tower blocks, universities, research centres and what have-you take over from the gas holders.
The same will turn out to be true of HS2, if it does get built. It is not really about regenerating the North so much as about regenerating north London. Property tycoons on Euston Road will cash in while in Birmingham and Manchester life goes on pretty much as before – although with a few more of the cities’ professional people commuting to London. As for the cities that HS2 bypasses – Coventry, Stoke, Doncaster and many others – they will end up with a less good rail service than they have now.
HS2 trains to Birmingham will bypass New Street station, cutting off connections to places such as Shrewsbury and Wolverhampton. At Nottingham and Sheffield, passengers will have to decant onto a tram to go the last few miles. But there is nothing which better sums up the ill-conceived nature of HS2 than what will happen at East Midlands airport. The decision to build HS2 was supposedly influenced by a ride George Osborne took on a high-speed train to a Chinese airport. But which country other than Britain would build a £50 billion rail line which tunnels under the runway of an international airport – without putting a station there?