By Alex Burrows
In recent days, there has been a coordinated effort by opponents of the HS2 scheme to derail this vital project. Objections have focused primarily on the cost of the scheme with the Institute of Economic Affairs spuriously claiming a total of £80 billion, while unnamed Treasury officials came up with £73 billion – again, erroneously pricing in inflation to create an inflated figure. The correct figure is £42.6 billion and even that includes £14 billion of contingency, which is required for infrastructure projects.
The cost of the high speed train fleet is completely separate – the Thameslink and Crossrail schemes would be considerably more expensive if the train fleets (and inflation for that matter) were included in the price. Comparing like for like is crucial.
Furthermore, this £42.6 billion will be spent over 20 years. Consider that an average of £2b billion a year will be spent on HS2 when the government spends in the region of £700 billion, a year and all of a sudden the context changes.
But why support HS2 anyway at that price? Well, here is the rub. Not only are rail passenger numbers steadily increasing year-on-year, but we are seeing more people rely on public transport due to the increased cost of living and of owning a car. This is particularly marked in the younger generations but is not limited to them alone. With trains offering a much improved passenger experience with improving wifi facilities, comfort and reliability, this passenger demand will continue on this trend. That leaves us with the country's most important railway line (the West Coast Main Line) hitting absolute maximum capacity by the end of this decade.
A number of opponents to HS2 chime in here with the argument about alternatively spending money on local transport. Yes, local transport is crucial too, but HS2 will deliver additional capacity for local and regional trains across eight of the ten major cities and their regions. The issue is that our current railway network has to cope with intercity trains, commuter and regional trains, as well as freight trains. They all stop in different places and go at significantly different speeds. This is not an efficient use of railway capacity and is blocking the potential for ongoing growth.
Furthermore, we have to get a grip as a country when it comes to infrastructure. Make do and mend is wasteful, inefficient, impractical and poor value. We need a long-term plan for our infrastructure needs that is strategic and coordinated.
Trying to upgrade our existing main lines will ultimately cost significantly more than HS2 to deliver the intercity capacity and even then would not much help the local trains that the regional cities rely on.
It is a fallacy to claim that the money for HS2 would be spent on local transport and that the results would be anywhere near as beneficial as HS2 would be. The debate has to stop fixating on opponents' claims and come back to the reality that numerous organisations including Network Rail, the Department for Transport, the regional cities (including Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield), Passenger Transport Executives and the vast majority of transport professionals are arguing.
HS2 is about building a sufficient level of additional capacity onto our rail network to cater for the very real growth being experienced. Without it, people will be priced off the railways and the economic and social consequences of that would be far greater.
Alex Burrows is head of transport and infrastructure at Insight Public Affairs.
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