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The great high speed white elephant

HS2 mapHigh Speed Rail 2 is a massive white elephant, a £50bn boondoggle of a project as out of time as it is over priced. Yet, despite this I am a little sore that the bid Stoke-on-Trent put forward for a station got dismissed out of hand. Were it on the basis of a competition in which its projections got weighed up against those of a rival’s and found wanting, then fair enough. That didn’t happen, and what we have been left with – the ‘Crewe hub’ – is the worst of all possible worlds.

I’ve never been sold on the economic benefits HS2 will bring. Sure, construction, engineering, and railway jobs will get created – though for the former as the line’s first phase begins works from London towards Birmingham, this particular project won’t be helping regional rebalancing in the build phase. Then there are the claims made for it. For instance, Cheshire East leader Michael Jones says:

The Crewe HS2 Superhub will produce 64,000 jobs and boost the North West’s economic output by £3.5bn per annum. It will act as a major gateway for the region, energising the northern powerhouse … Overall, we believe that HS2 will unlock development sites throughout Cheshire and North Staffordshire for new offices, factories, warehouses shops and new homes.

Colour me sceptical. Slashing 20 minutes from the train journey to the capital from Crewe, and Manchester (and eventually) Liverpool will do all this. Or so we’re told. The problem is there is absolutely no evidence it will produce anything like these benefits. This 2009 comparative analysis of high speed rail in Europeconcludes, not entirely surprisingly, by noting “The economic appraisal of new lines has to look carefully to the deviated and generated traffic, the time savings, any additional benefit, and the users’ willingness to pay … There are socially profitable projects, and others which are not.” Helpful.

Then there is this (undated) piss and wind. For example, marshalling a great deal of expert criticism of HS2, Mike Geddes demonstrates that not only are the vast majority of jobs to be created temporary (for the duration of the construction) but that each new occupation comes at the cost of approximately £350,000.

Thirdly, as many, many people before me have pointed out a railway track is two-way. What’s to say making it easier to get to London will not primarily benefit London, thereby exacerbating regional economic imbalances?

On the Stoke bid for a station, the economics of the decision to go for Crewe appear less than those for the Potteries. The city, Newcastle-under-Lyme, and Kidsgrove form a contiguous urban area of around 325,000 people – that’s bigger than Nottingham. It has two universities, multiple colleges, arguably remains the world centre for ceramics manufacture and an economy and – incredibly – has something of a thriving tourist industry. The area would benefit tremendously from regeneration and it is unlikely its manufacturing businesses would disappear down the high speed rail track. The land for the station exists a stone’s throw from the city centre and has the advantage of cheap and, at present, plentiful brownfield sites for exiled Londoners who decide to strike north. Furthermore, the route through Stoke would shave off a little bit of extra time and between £2.8bn and £5bn off the final bill. A much larger population as well would, you might expect, see any economic benefits outstrip those accruing to Crewe, which is approximately four times smaller.

And while Crewe is being magnanimous in victory and talking up the benefits HS2 there will bring Stoke, it’s likely to damage the city. Firstly, the existing service from Manchester to Euston via Stoke will simply disappear. Whereas various services now run about three every hour to London, we’ll be lucky if we see three trains a day. It means people wishing to head down the track will have to travel further afield to get the fast train, negating any benefits supposedly accruing from speed. Effectively, 320,000 people are being told that a reduction in service and a longer journey to Crewe will somehow spark off an economic renaissance of North Staffordshire. What a joke.

One does not like to by cynical, but when the stronger case for Stoke is simply dismissed without a serious review of the numbers, you have to ask if something else is going on. And sure enough, whereas the four seats comprising Stoke-Newcastle-Kidsgrove are Labour and unlikely to switch in 2015, Crewe and Nantwich is a Tory marginal facing a very strong challenge. Are the Tories really desperate enough to forego significant construction savings to keep hold of a swing seat? We live in times where the Prime Minister is happy to jeopardise Britain’s relationship to the EU just to see off UKIP, so the answer is yes.

But the biggest problem is HS2 is a massive waste of money. To rejuvenate British capitalism in the 21st century, to give it an edge versus its competitors that £50bn can be much better spent. Wiring up every single home and business to the very latest in superfast broadband technology, sinking cash into cheap renewables, investing heavily in education – including abolishing tuition fees – would offer real tangible economic benefits and improve the quality of people’s lives. HS2 may be expensive, but all it shows off is the poverty of Britain’s ambitions.

2 Comments

  1. celynwales says:

    I’m more open minded about HS2. I hear these legitimate criticisms but we have to look positively at major investments in public transport; we have been left far behind by most of Western Europe. (Eastern Europe still has lots of trams, which is excellent too of course). As I understand it (and I’m afraid I’ve lost the reference to a very excellent article on this theme), the strongest criticism is that the extended system is intent on creating new commercial zones as the hubs, rather than taking them into the centre of towns and cities, where that sort of investment would undoubtedly boost regeneration. Users will require to get in their cars to access HS rail or look to additional costs of limited function local transport systems to serve these hubs. I recall that Nottingham is a fine example of this dreadful proposal. If anyone has knowledge of the article I refer to please add it to this discussion. Thanks.

  2. the government has refused to publish its own internal assessment of the economics of HS2 on the grounds it would compromise the civil servants. FOI does not seem to apply.

    Tells you all you need to know

    trevor fisher.

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