Wednesday 13 November 2013

End this High Speed Folly

Two of my  friends who are railway buffs are enthusiastic supporters of HS2 (the plan to build a high speed railway form London to Birmingham, and, eventually, to Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds).  One ruefully admits that the project is unlikely ever to be achieved  because "Britain is no longer capable of implementing long term ventures such as this."  The other challenges my argument that the money could be better spent on other transport projects, by pointing out that the sort of money required is only available for grandiose projects, and not for titsy-bitsy improvements to the existing infrastructure.  He could be right, but, if so, that is a damning indictment of the quality of the vision of our leaders.

The initial justification for HS2 was that it would cut the journey time from London to Birmingham by 40 minutes.  When that was laughingly  ridiculed the justification shifted to the need for extra capacity.  (There are lots of other ways of gaining extra capacity: not least longer trains.  The necessary extension of a few platforms would cost only a tiny fraction of HS2.)  Then we were threatened that, if the existing rail network were to be improved, that could involve weekend closures on some services for up to 14 years.  It is good to know that the powers that be have such concern for our access to weekend leisure activities.

 It is argued  also that, by improving connections with London, the project will generate growth and prosperity in the Midlands and North.  It is just as likely to drain enterprise and resources from the North to the South by turning the entire nation into a vast suburb of London. In any case, we are a small island and, with the advent of new communication facilities such as Skype and whatever other  new tricks the IT people are going to invent in the next 30 years, the need for businessmen or anybody else to go whizzing up and  down it is highly questionable.

Already the projected cost has risen by £10bn and the projected benefits recalculated and reduced. In addition, the man placed in charge of  the HS2 project  is a Sir David Higgins, the same David Higgins who was chief executive of the 2012 Olympics Delivery Authority, a project which was originally estimated to cost £2.4bn and eventually came in at £8.77bn, a whopping  increase of 265%?  If Higgins's cost-management skills do not improve then we can expect HS2 to cost well over £100bn rather than the present estimate of £42bn.

I think I've read somewhere that the government has already squandered over £400m on consultancy fees.  If the scheme goes ahead then further billions, yes billions, will be spent on lawyers, planners, contract negotiations, land purchases and compensation.  Not much of that will "trickle down" into local economies.

To avert this waste we need to "bend up every spirit to its full height" to get this swanky project abandoned in favour of  shovel-ready improvements  to the existing network, which, as well as dragging the rest of the infrastructure into the 21st Century,  will generate local employment now when it is wanted, and not in some distant dream future.

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