‘HS2 was always designed to be much more than just a high-speed railway and today we can see the opportunities it brings right around the country – spreading prosperity, acting as a catalyst for investment and rebalancing our economy 10 years before the railway even opens,” said David Higgins, chairman of the high-speed railway, as the first construction contracts were awarded on Monday.
We’ll have to get used to self-serving boasts in this style. The most irritating part is the invitation to think that it’s OK to spend £55.7bn on a high-speed railway – the last official budget – if the construction spreads a little peace, love and rebalancing on the way.
The better question is to ask is whether HS2 is the most effective way to pursue such goals and whether the promised “jobs bonanza” – another pet phrase of the HS2 fans – could be delivered more cheaply by other means.
Last year, the House of Lords economic affairs committee and the Treasury committee in the Commons came to the awkward conclusion that the economic case for HS2 had not been made conclusively.
One can add Michael Byng to those sceptical voices. He is the rail consultant who has calculated that each mile of the initial section from London to Birmingham will cost more than £400m, almost twice the official figure.
Transport secretary Chris Grayling told the BBC the calculation is “just nonsense”, but let’s hope his department bothers to publish a transparent reply, including workings.
Better still, Grayling could order some worked-up examples of what else you can buy for £55.7bn. Railway experts look to smaller-scale upgrades of track and junctions and wonder how many won’t be built as the HS2 mega-project dominates transport spending for the next decade.
Ask the public, and one suspects 90% of respondents would happily settle for a conventional railway to expand capacity on the west coast if the savings could be spent on the NHS. Or perhaps they’d prefer a serious housebuilding programme.
Don’t hold your breath, though. The engineers have won the battle for HS2, and they are determined to persuade you that theirs is the only possible way to spend £55bn, or whatever the true cost turns out to be.
Large iconic projects have been the project of choice for policymakers and politicians. The reasons are somewhat obvious – they are very visible, it is easy to grab media attention for them and public opinion is easily manipulated to support them.
HS2 is not the only iconic project which will use large amounts of funding and probably wont achieve what its supporters assert.
In Cornwall we have had the Eden project, Heartlands and various road schemes which have used up considerable amounts of funding and where the benefits are dubious.
As with HS2, we could ask how could the money have been spent in a more beneficial way? Instead of more roads, more public transport for example!