16 March 2016

HS2 heading for the buffers

By Nigel Vinson

If the Chancellor is looking for economies in today’s Budget and needs measures to improve the nation’s falling productivity – he should look no further than to scrap HS2 before the project becomes irreversible.  It looks doomed anyway, after the recent report from Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh, estimating its safe maximum running speed due to ground conditions as 157 miles per hour – little more than existing trains.

Transport experts at the Institute of Economic Affairs claim that it could now cost – allowing for ancillary developments and connections – some £80 billion compared to £30 billion when first projected.  For many travellers, it won’t even do what it set out to do: save time.  It won’t even directly link to the continent via HS1 – a ten minute walk between the two terminals, Euston to St Pancras, put paid to that.  Several stations along its route are out of town – adding an extra stage to journeys.

It will be at least seventeen years before HS2 is finished and then, like every other high-speed railway in the world, operating at a substantial loss with a huge national subsidy – mainly from people who never use it.

It is a rich boy’s toy – and an anachronistic one at that – being the most expensive form of transport, at least twice the cost of flying, often more expensive than by car and probably three times the cost of going by bus.

If it is productivity the Chancellor is after, he should invest in the roads – a universal transport system – which are crying out for betterment.  The A1 to Scotland is still not fully dualled and the link roads over the Pennines a constant source of delay and accidents.  If he wants to power the North, he should try the awful road from Manchester to Sheffield which takes at least an hour but if duelled could half the journey time – how’s that for a real gain?!

In the UK economy 90% relies on roads and in our small island rail freight is mostly uneconomical.  Consequently goods go by road because the three-stage journey, inevitable by rail, cannot compete with door to door overnight deliveries.  Ask any white van driver – the people who really understand about time saving!  Even  spending a few millions on slip roads at roundabouts would ease much congestion and bring substantial economic benefit.

Lord Adonis, you are probably too committed to change your mind but Chancellor, there is time to change yours.  Why not be persuaded by the damning report on HS2 from the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, which the Treasury appears to have ignored, and scrap this fanciful project and divert the savings to more rewarding investment  – before your high speed rail costs hit the buffers?

Lord Vinson is Life Vice President and former Chair of the IEA Board of Trustees