THE MADNESS OF HS2…YET IT’S STILL FULL STEAM AHEAD

BILL JAMIESON

The problems keep coming, the costs keep rising, and the Commons reports keep damning … but HS2 – Britain’s most expensive rail project- steams serenely on.

How long can the government turn a blind eye to the growing crisis around this project?

In the past month Simon Kirby, HS2’s £750,000 a year chief executive, has quit.

The Commons Treasury Select Committee has – again – come out against it.

And the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has just published another damning report on HS2.

Andrew Tyrie MP, Chair of the Commons Treasury Select Committee, has written to the Transport Secretary saying that the economic case for HS2 is not supported by the numbers when it comes to capacity and speed, and that out of all the projects proposed by Government, HS2 is the weakest.

“HS2”, he declared, “has the weakest economic case of all the projects within the infrastructure programme, yet it is being pushed through with the most enthusiasm.”

Meanwhile Meg Hillier MP, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, says: “Parliament and the public are still in the dark about crucial details – not least when the railway will open, how much it is expected to cost and precisely where it will go.”

Useful points for us to know.

At the original HS2 launch in 2009 then Transport secretary Lord Adonis claimed it would be “the union railway, uniting England and Scotland, north and south, richer and poorer parts of our country”.

A “union railway”? – that’s now been radically scaled back.

Even without this spurious boast, estimates of the cost of the high speed rail link between London and the north have shot from £33 billion three years ago to £42 billion.

Now estimates within the Treasury are said to suggest the final cost could spiral to “£80 billion plus”.

Exaggerated? Cost inflation has long been endemic in big rail link projects. The Channel Tunnel link overran by 40 per cent. The West Coast Main Line overshot by almost 80 per cent.

As for the official cost-benefit analysis of HS2, the National Audit Office concluded that transport officials “were using “fragile numbers, out-of-date data and assumptions that do not reflect real life”. The Treasury select committee subsequently spoke of “serious shortcomings” in official economic assessments.

Construction of HS2 is now due to start next year, with the first phase of the project expected to open a year late.

Yet despite this avalanche of questioning and criticism, Prime Minister Theresa May appears fully committed. Last month she said she was “fully committed” to the high-speed north-south rail link, representing, she said, “a lifetime opportunity to rebalance our country’s economy”.

The guffaws did not just come from north of the border. Wrote prominent economist Liam Halligan, “I don’t buy that for one moment.
“Of course, governments want showcase projects and ministers want ‘legacies’. But what really matters now is sustained investment into the unglamorous local services that get the vast majority of train commuters across the UK to work.”

That certainly rings true in Scotland. In May last year the team behind HS2 announced that the link would not be extended to Scotland, arguing that there was ‘no business case’ for the undertaking.

Then in March this year, HS2 published its report which “explored options” that “could reduce” journey times to London to three hours or under. It would also consider providing “additional passenger and freight capacity where it is projected that future demand will not otherwise be met” (my italics).

The report to be fair, made some welcome and positive points. It recognised the need for higher speed Edinburgh to Glasgow. For if Scotland is not to be totally eclipsed by Hs2 and the Northern Powerhouse project we need to see big improvements to our existing rail network.

The Edinburgh to Glasgow Improvement Programme (EGIP) will see a £742 million spend on central Scotland’s railway infrastructure with plans to deliver electrification on the main line between the cities by the end of this year.

Work is also progressing on the new £41 million Edinburgh Gateway station, serving passengers from Fife and the north accessing Edinburgh airport and interchanging onto the tram network.

All good and welcome – but these projects pale before the HS2 white elephant. Were Scotland to receive a pro rata GDP share of this £42 billion spend – let’s assume that figure rises no further – we would be looking at a £3.7 billion uplift to our railway infrastructure.

A crude calculation, perhaps. But think of how our public transport services – could be improved by such a sum.

Instead, there is an obsession with cutting the rail journey time between Birmingham and London – as if wi-fi had not greatly facilitated working on trains.

And far from revitalising “the north” it would be more likely to accelerate the drain of jobs and wealth towards London.

It is hard not to agree with the acid summary of Stop HS2 campaign manager Joe Rukin: “It doesn’t seem to matter how bad the case for HS2 is, or how terrible the performance of HS2 Ltd is, there is a collective blindness to reality which seems to dictate it has to happen, no matter how loud the alarm bells ring.

“The whole thing is totally bonkers.”

On past form, it’s just the conclusion that will ensure full steam ahead.

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