HS2 is a disastrous white elephant

| 12th May 2014
Bringing out the big guns for HS2, 21st November 2013. Too bad they're all wrong. Photo: BCC Birmingham News room via Flickr.com.
Bringing out the big guns for HS2, 21st November 2013. Too bad they're all wrong. Photo: BCC Birmingham News room via Flickr.com.
HS2, the UK's £50bn+ high-speed rail project to speed travel between London and Birmingham - and eventually Manchester and beyond is colossal waste of money, writes Rupert Read. The resources should be used to fund sustainable local and regional transport schemes.
HS2 is inherently socially regressive - requiring a massive public subsidy from ordinary taxpayers for the benefit of the rich, during what we are constantly told are tough times for government spending.

Government forecasts on the costs of HS2 are now up by 30% to £53 billion. The Institute of Economic Affairs predicts that the total cost of HS2 will be around £80 billion.

Whatever the final figure that's £50-80bn that could be going towards real improvements to local and regional transport systems. This is the equivalent of at least £2,000 for each of the UK's 23.4 million households.

And most parts of the country, my own Eastern Region included, are going to see none of this money on the present plans.

Fiddled economics

There are serious flaws in the economic case for HS2. First, the government's 'return on investment' (ROI) assessment assumes an average passenger income of £70,000 pa to justify the benefit of time savings.

It's not simply will this be a train service for the rich, it will be a train service that is only justifiable insofar as those using it are well-paid business people.

HS2 is thus inherently socially regressive - requiring a massive public subsidy from ordinary taxpayers for the benefit of the rich, during what we are constantly told are tough times for government spending.

Even putting the public interest case to one side, the sums are dubious: they assume travel time is worthless, that people are unable to work on trains. When this is error is corrected, the benefits of a shorter journey time are drastically lessened, as in fact a longer journey time allows people to complete tasks without interruption.

And even the best ROI figures the government can concoct compare extremely unfavourably with typical ratios for infrastructure projects. Phase 1 taken alone is estimated to return only £1.40 on every £1, whereas a 2012 DfT report suggests expansion of the West Coast main line would return £6.06.

Carbon emissions - benefits 'could result' ... after 120 years

Second, HS2 is intended as purely a passenger service, it would not carry freight. Any benefits accrued from getting vehicles off the road, including the reduction of negative externalities from carbon emissions, are thus seriously diminished.

The carbon reduction argument for the passenger service is weak, as HS2 will be encouraging new journeys as well as (in fact, much more than) replacing them. A report by the '51m' alliance indicates HS2 will not reduce emissions, as any domestic air travel reductions would free slots for more profitable international routes.

A separate report, commissioned by HS2 Ltd itself, is not definitive about carbon reductions, suggesting after 60 years "a net increase in emissions is also possible", while some reductions "could result" after 120 years of operation.

HS2 is inherently socially regressive - requiring a massive public subsidy from ordinary taxpayers for the benefit of the rich, during what we are constantly told are tough times for government spending.

Regenerating the Midlands - or strengthening London's supremacy?

Much of the rhetoric in support of HS2 focuses on the "regeneration" of the Midlands and the North of England via better connectivity.

But as was revealed in a parliamentary answer, commuter trains leaving Euston for the North are currently mostly empty, and HS2 cannot be expected to change this significantly.

It is only the expected volume of commuters to London that will make the service economically viable. Rather than regenerating the rest of the country, HS2 is only going to strengthen London as a centre of gravity, and deplete the Midlands and the North even further.

Bashing our countryside

Finally the cost of the project to the natural world, to our countryside and wildlife, would be enormous. As it stands, the hefty price tag is down largely to the value of the property in London and the Home Counties through which the route runs, some of the highest in the country.

But from an environmental standpoint, the cost is even higher, with the Wildlife Trusts judging the Environment Assessment for Phase 1 (London-Birmingham) to be "inadequate".

Seven Sites of Special Scientific Interest, three Wildlife Trust nature reserves, 66 Local Wildlife Sites and 25 proposed Local Wildlife Sites will be damaged or destroyed by the line for Phase 1, with 92 wildlife sites indirectly affected. In all 82 irreplaceable ancient woodlands are at risk of damage under present plans.

The predicted damage for the Phase 2 route on to Manchester is just as severe, if not worse.

How the money could be spent

Given that an independent member of the HS2 analytical challenge panel, Professor Henry Overman stated that HS2 was "not particularly good value for money" we have to seriously ask, what else could this money be spent on?

The answer: a great deal. This is a considerable sum to play with, and in the right hands, it would finance massive upheaval of the public transport system in this country, including city public transport and cycle hire.. This is the ideal context to start talking about a Green Transport Revolution.

An approach to transport planning that is compatible with one-planet-living recognises three key principles, which have so far been insufficiently acknowledged:

  • Access not mobility - sensible planning and localisation of industry and investment should be prioritised to cut demand for journeys. For example, many of the business trips that would be made by HS2 could be substituted for by video-conferencing, especially with nationwide investment in high-speed broadband.
  • Keep journeys short - Don't encourage new journeys and unsustainable commuting patterns, as HS2 seems designed to do, but facilitate existing links through targeted local investment.
  • Management before infrastructure - Make full use of latent existing infrastructure before considering building new links. Build new links only where doing so will actually result in new links.

The railway network should become ... a network

Green transport policy is built on this foundation. We need to be looking not at isolated commuter links between cities, but at the rail network as a network.

The simple truth is that we will not improve the North with an infrastructure project focused on London, but by improving connectivity within the North of England itself.

The same is true nationally, and in combination with wider Green policy on increasing regional investment and the power of local governance (reversing the current trend in the opposite direction), broader investment would lead to a real renaissance in overlooked areas around the country.

Under a system of benefit analysis that put the majority of the population over the interests of the elite, we would see our priorities completely changed. There are numerous other routes which should be built or re-opened, effectively a reversal of Beeching.

This would include completion of the East-West link, and creating a "knowledge corridor" linking Oxford and Cambridge through Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire, in the process also completing a link between Cornwall and the East coast without having to go via London.

HS2 has no part to play in a green transport future

Most importantly, by renationalising the rail network we would overcome the preoccupation with business arteries and allow railways to become a viable alternative to everyday road travel for the greater part of the population.

By contrast, HS2 is just taking an existing fast connection, and just making it even faster, benefitting few people and doing nothing for wider system connectivity.

Last month's Parliamentary debate revealed that none of the old parties will defend their constituents' interests by blocking HS2. Only the Green Party is saying clearly that HS2 has no part to play in a Green Transport Revolution.



Rupert Read is Green Party Transport Spokesperson, and lead MEP-candidate for the East of England at this year's European Elections. Website: www.rupertread.net. Twitter: @GreenRupertRead (political) or @RupertRead (personal).


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