The real issue facing the UK is how to increase capacity in our public transport system. Few transport professionals would support the newly approved High Speed Rail 2 project (HS2) compared to Rod Eddington’s highly regarded policy proposals from December 2006, which would make a genuine difference to public transport. These are all very boring but necessary, such as station platform extensions and improving signalling.
Eddington’s proposals conclude that the UK’s transport network is broadly adequate, connecting the right places, so the government does not need to worry about building new infrastructure such as high-speed rail links and cross-country motorways, but should instead concentrate on improving existing road and rail networks.
I agree with Allister Heath’s argument. The ultimate cost is bound to be uncertain and is most unlikely to be less than forecast. Why does the government not invite rail companies to bid to build and run the project on the basis of the amount of subsidy each bidder would require? On such a basis taxpayer subsidy would be accurately identified. And of course there are better ways of promoting regeneration of the north. One would be to abolish minimum wages. Removing disincentives to employment would be a creative start.
What possible justification can there be for building a new rail track when improvements of the existing tracks and trains would probably achieve most of the benefits?
For me, it’s the business case that is the Achilles Heel with the HS2 proposals. By developing a faster route between London and Birmingham it will, in theory, make it easier for people to work in London and live in Birmingham, meaning more people will likely cram into the already over-populated southeast with limited, if any, economic benefit to Birmingham. Surely an infrastructure proposal of this scale would have been better linking Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle; helping to enable the development of a well-connected northern economic region to effectively compete with London and reduce the current southeast bias?
Let the beneficiaries pay
The link can be built at no cost to the UK taxpayers, let the main beneficiaries pay. Eastern European nations who will take all the construction jobs can chip in, as can the French who will undoubtedly will win the franchise to operate it. A German contribution would reflect the purchase of their rolling stock and electrical switchgear and signalling. Job done. There is as little in this for British manufacturing as there is for business in general.
Yesterday I wrote to my MP (James Arbuthnot), advising him that the financial case for the rail link seemed to be deeply flawed and asking that he question the assumptions made by the Department for Transport. I realise that politics these days is about narrative, but nevertheless our government seem to enjoy taking this into the realms of Hans Christian Andersen where brighter futures need no basis in reality.
The numbers add up
In relation to Allister Heath’s second point:
Eurostar 1996 = 4.9m passengers; 2000 = 7.1m; 2006 = 7.85m; 2010 = 9.5m.
A major infrastructure project cannot be judged on completion figures. This is a project for the future. Long has government been criticised for lack of proper travel infrastructure planning. Here it is.
In response to your editorial, I am not convinced by the case for HS2.
If the aim is to give Scotland, Leeds and the East Midlands economic benefits, then simply upgrade the ageing East Coast mainline, which runs through all of them. This would be cheaper and quicker to implement than HS2 and would not require greenfield land to be built on or tunnelled through.
Also, if we are to lavish £32bn on the railways (questionable, given the current economic environment), we should split the difference between investing in existing infrastructure where needed across the whole country and subsidising all fares. Cheap, reliable travel is something that almost all of the travelling public want, wishes which would be far better served by doing this than investing in a system that will benefit a small minority of travellers.
Denial ain’t just a river
Consider the comments of Justine Greening, the new Transport Minister, on the Heathrow expansion:
“At every stage the government has ignored public opinion and shamelessly ignored the grave environmental risk of expanding Heathrow. At every stage, residents have made their concerns and views against further expansion very clear. The battle to stop Heathrow expansion will continue because preserving our quality of life is so important. I have got involved in buying this land to very actively represent the views of my own constituents. If the government will not listen in parliament, then ministers will find they have to listen in the courts.”
Now look at the responses to the consultation on HS2, which came out demonstrably against all aspects of the plans, despite the efforts of the yes to HS2 campaign – www.bit.ly/HS2consult (pdf). We won hands down on the numbers which was of course why it was buried by everyone yesterday.
I think Allister’s view is completely right about the new rail plan.
The “core” of the UK economy is London and it will continue to be indefinitely, but London transport is essentially still rotten and needs serious investment if London is to continue as a global leading city and a strong economic growth driver for the UK. Why then is the government investing such a large amount with little mass benefit on essentially a periphery project that won’t significantly benefit the long term economy after the construction jobs finish? This decision reflects why the UK is in the state it is and the decision should be overturned so that investments can be made in the areas of most need (London rail and air capacity), which will produce stronger business cases.
Londoners are tired of cramped old trains with continuous signalling problems and old stations. Fix these first and don’t waste £32bn on a scheme that will benefit a small percentage of the population. I have travelled to Birmingham a few times in the last six months and the speed is adequate, while the trains have only been two-thirds full in peak hours. This is, therefore, an outrageous waste of public money in these austere times when any significant public spending should come under heavy scrutiny.
To dismiss the idea of a high-speed railway to serve those in the UK residing north of Watford Gap strikes me as perverse, when compared with the planned and actual high speed train lines in any number of other developed economies. However, what needs challenging by the government is the proposed cost. The McNulty review of the UK rail industry found Network Rail to be a very expensive custodian of the UK network by European cost standards (nearly 50 per cent of fare revenue goes to Network Rail).
Also, McNulty found that building a new high speed line in the UK appears four times as expensive as doing so abroad. Clearly, rather than announcing the amount they expect to spend, thus setting a floor price on the whole project, the government ought to put the line specification out to competitive tender abroad. Rail engineers, given an open cheque-book, have a habit of gold-plating specifications on technical grounds – for instance those who use the Eurotunnel shuttles wonder why having got through the tunnel in 25 minutes they are then treated to a slow-speed amble around a huge circle cut into the Calais countryside, before reaching the terminal in 35 minutes. It saves the driver having to walk from one shuttle loco to the other at each terminal, but at what cost?
This “new era” for rail transport in the UK needs to leave behind antiquated and costly regulation and management models, as well as antiquated infrastructure, otherwise with high costs and fares it could indeed become a white elephant.