14 January 2019

The latest chapter in this sorry farce should derail HS2


There is a new instalment in the poorly acted farce that is HS2. Today it has been revealed that HS2 may be forced to cut the number of trains it runs each hour in a vain attempt to curtail the project’s ever-increasing costs.

The move would reduce the maximum numbers of trains on the line to 14 an hour in each direction — a reduction of about a fifth. This would lower the capacity of the line by the equivalent of 8,800 passengers an hour during peak times. The chief executive responsible, Mark Thurston, has also suggested that the much-vaunted high speed of the line could have to be cut.

Such a move should rightly place increasing pressure on the entire project. The entire rationale behind HS2 was that the UK needed extra capacity on the line behind London and Birmingham, there should be improved links between the North of England and the capital, and these journeys would be much faster than standard rail journeys (the clue being in the words ‘High’ and ‘Speed’ in its name).

This latest debacle is just the latest in a long line of failures which demonstrates why HS2 is neither a sensible nor economical method of achieving these aims. It is nothing more than a white elephant and a vanity project which needs to be scrapped.

As this latest fiasco reveals, delivering HS2 in a cost effective way is impossible. For example, the Department for Transport’s (DfT) latest figures assume the total cost of the project, including rolling stock, will amount to £55.7 billion (in 2015 money). The National Audit Office calculated that the final cost for Phase One (London to Birmingham) will be £27 billion.

HS2 is already having a hugely negative impact on people and communities and that is only going to get worse. Homes which have been in families for generations will be destroyed, communities torn asunder, fire stations forced to move, sports centres demolished, and graves exhumed. The great Conservative politician and thinker, Edmund Burke said that society is “a partnership of the dead, the living and the unborn”. HS2 violates this intergenerational contract between all three.

It is not just the huge costs and the damage it will cause that is the problem. It’s the sheer ineptitude of those running the project that really sticks in the craw. For example, HS2 Ltd delivered demolition warning letters to the wrong housing block, informing residents that their homes would be bulldozed to the ground, despite the fact that there were no such plans. Then, in a breathtaking display of incompetence, the company did the exact same thing to another 15,000 people. Humans have been sending letters to each other since antiquity, but it would appear that this relatively simple task has been too much for HS2 Ltd.

It gets worse. Even more families received letters suggesting that their homes were at risk from being purchased by the Government less than a month after the original threat letter was put down to a typo in the letters sent out. Perhaps having realised that epistolary was not their forte, HS2 Ltd decided to just not tell some people that their homes were going to be destroyed. Instead, these people were left to find out via Facebook and word of mouth. One can only assume that HS2 had also considered smoke signals, flag semaphore, and interpretive dance as equally acceptable methods of communicating to families that their homes would soon be reduced to rubble.

What is more, sending a draft order to the HS2 Hybrid Bill Committee, HS2 Ltd missed 20 miles’ worth of locations off their list. Such a move would appear to reveal that nobody at HS2 Ltd ever learnt how to read a map. It should surely be a basic requirement of any organisation tasked with undertaking a major railway project that they should have at least a basic grasp of geography.

No one is suggesting that the Government should not spend money on infrastructure projects, especially when transport networks in the UK are low quality, inadequate in scope, and congested.

Travelling by rail in the UK is often an expensive and demoralising experience as too many people attempt to squeeze onto overcrowded trains as they commute to work. If you’re lucky, then this journey will take place on a nice, modern train. The less fortunate commuter will find themselves holding on as they travel on a rattling, shuddering, pacer train as it emits a high pitched squealing noise as it attempts to reach 50 mph.

This is, of course, if the train turns up on time, or even at all. Due to the rent-seeking, shiftless, and greedy railway unions determined to squeeze yet more money from taxpayers and commuters, countless people have found themselves unable to complete essential railway journeys.

Rail accounts for 11 per cent of distance travelled (excluding walking) and is concentrated in London and other economically intensive areas. However, transport in the UK is dominated by road travel, with 82 per cent of journeys made by cars and vans and 9 per cent by bus (again, excluding walking). A 2017 global study found that the UK has the world’s seventh most congested roads and the third most congested in Europe. The study concluded that the cost of this congestion in 2017 was £38 billion, with £10 billion in London alone.

There are a host of problems that stem from congestion: it increases travel time, restricts labour markets, leads to less efficient job matching, and increases logistics costs. Ultimately, it lowers productivity and hampers economic growth.

Our woeful transport infrastructure not only holds back the economy, it also exacerbates poverty, inequality, and prevents social mobility. A review of the academic literature reveals the importance of transport, especially to households on low incomes. For example, Ohnmacht et al, and Lucas, have argued that a lack of transport is linked to social disadvantage and exclusion. Elsewhere, Bauman has stated that those lacking the resources and transport options required for being able to move become deprived from interacting with the opportunities offered by society.

With all that in mind, it makes no sense for the Government to be putting so much of taxpayers’ money into a vanity project such as HS2 while the rest of our infrastructure remains so chronically under-resourced. The tens of billions going on HS2 should instead be spent on projects which will actually work and that are cost effective. That is why the TaxPayers’ Alliance launched the Great British Transport Competition, in order to find such infrastructure projects worthy of our hard-earned cash.

The latest revelation from HS2 is further proof that it is a waste of money which has caused misery to countless people around the country. HS2 should be derailed immediately and the money spent on projects that will improve the nation’s transport infrastructure in a cost effective way.

Ben Ramanauskas is a Policy Analyst at the Taxpayers' Alliance.