Andrew Tettenborn: Binning HS2 would boost Britain by £100 billion

Recently, the Prime Minister has been handed on a plate a chance to raise her profile, save the country billions, provide lots of election goodies, please a large majority of the population, and leave Jezza floundering, all at the same time. Too good to be true? Possibly, given a Tory Party reminiscent of a rabbit in a Land Rover’s headlights. But it’s still worth trying.

You’ve guessed: the key is HS2. It hasn't been good week for Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, normally an effective politician. He looked like a cornered car salesman when he declined to reveal HS2's current budget or timescale. Forget “commercial confidentiality”; it’s obvious to a blind imbecile that both are seriously out of control, and that the whole plan faces serious problems.

This is May’s opportunity. Be open. State that times have changed, that the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee was right to have its doubts two years ago; that even a number of professionals have their doubts; that a new estimate of something like £400 million per mile, way above previous predictions, shows that it’s time to think again; that we need a cushion for Brexit, and that the Tory Party is the party that’s prepared to do all this. HS2, regrettably, has to go.

First benefit: large numbers of extra votes based on financial prudence (a poll last year showed that only 15 per cent thought HS2 wasn’t a waste of money) and simple self-interest (think voters in Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Northants, Warwickshire, Derbyshire and Yorkshire, not forgetting the nonsense of demolishing newbuild houses near Doncaster that happen to get in the way). And then add in the support of large numbers of her own MPs, together with some from the opposition, who have never been happy with this vanity project anyway; not to mention a sizeable number of local authorities, including those such as Coventry, who one might have thought stood to benefit.

Second benefit: a sensible decision in any case. As we pointed out on TCW a few months ago, the economics of the project took a big knock a little time ago when the House of Lords decided that HS2 couldn’t make its money from land development funded by compulsory purchase powers. As to who would use any new line, it would not be the likes of you and me, who don’t tend to need to travel from London to Manchester in 70 minutes; it would probably be a small number of high-powered lawyers, accountants and local authority bigwigs. The rest of us would use the older, and no doubt cheaper, ordinary main line, as would those whose destination was intermediate towns like Northampton, Lichfield or Stafford, which the new line wouldn’t serve. Indeed, there’s no guarantee that by connecting a few selected cities in the North we would regenerate the North at all. The law of unintended consequences means we might actually attract more business away from the North by making London easier to reach from places such as Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester.

Of course, we accept that there is a need for more rail capacity: the West Coast Main Line is running near its limit, and we need the ability to run more passenger and freight trains from the North to the South East. But there are other ways of doing this. The line from Paddington to Birmingham could be upgraded; and the old Great Central line – built to the more generous Continental loading-gauge and thus able to take larger trains from Europe – could be brought back into use at a fraction of the cost in land and disruption of HS2. The thinking behind HS2, which is that we should build a new super-speed passenger-only line serving very few towns in order to free up the old line that serves all of them for more freight traffic, is frankly dotty.

Third benefit: ditching HS2 gives Theresa £100 billion, give or take a few, to play with. Improve existing lines; restore electrification between Bath and Bristol, Cardiff and Swansea (thus avoiding considerable resentment in Wales – see here) and on the Midland Main Line. And there’s plenty of change for other projects, such as better housing, selective help for university students, or superfast broadband for all.

Fourth benefit: big problems for Labour. Corbyn desperately needs middle-class votes: there are precious few of those who support HS2, and faced with a decision by May to get rid of this albatross around her neck, it would be electorally very hard for Jezza, whose financial reputation is shaky at best, to insist on blowing £100 billion on a project most people regard as a complete waste of money.

Come to think of it, there’s an even more worrying scenario. One very cheap way for Jeremy Corbyn to gain the votes of Middle England would be for him to advocate abandoning HS2: by doing this he would get a reputation for financial prudence and popularity at one fell swoop. Tories, take note and think: this is a danger that may be closer than you imagine.

(Image: Mike T)

Andrew Tettenborn

  • Woman at home

    “Tories, take note and think”
    I like that optimism.

    • a misplaced modifier

      Hope is a good breakfast but a bad supper.

      • CRSM

        Never heard that before. A good phrase!

    • Greenlander

      Being in the EU for so long has robbed most of the ability to think, but I remain optimistic that someone with the ability will come along who hasn’t been infected with the EUbola virus.

  • martianonlooker

    Have you seen diversity adviser recruitment ads HS2 ran? That “estimate of something like £400 million per mile” must be about the going rate for that number of diversity advisers.
    On a more serious note, how much extra cash could Britain have if we didn’t pay our EU fees, controlled our borders, repatriated assorted benefit claimants, tightened up on those entitled to NHS treatment, closed the foreign aid budget, limited university study to the only the brightest and closed those wind farms aka the devolved assemblies?

    • Andrew Tettenborn

      You’re quite right: but, as one supermarket says, every little helps!

      • Little Black Censored

        (Sorry, accidentally downticked, but then I upticked to compensate.)
        Excellent article (except for the word “newbuild”). It raises the question, what is the real motive of those who are persisting with this silly scheme? Surely they must have one.

        • HardcastleCraggs

          Instructions from the EU?

          • Owen_Morgan

            Yes. Well, the French and the Belgians and the Germans have them and it’s not as if the trains would be made by English companies, is it?

          • Greenlander

            Exactly. The 9.30m from Berlin will be arriving in 15 years.

          • CRSM

            It would seem that the 03:00 from Shenzen will be arriving before then, the way that China is constructing trans-asia rail lines.

        • mudlark1

          It gives the illusion that politicians are doing something, however pointless it is in reality. HS2 was conceived in the dying days of the Brown government as a Labour initiative and launched by the unelected Lord Adonis. It was subsequently supported by the Coalition government. The Tories think it will get them votes from the north and despite hating the project, southern Conservatives are still prepared to carry on supporting a party which clearly loathes them. This project is the result of corporate lobbying and we desperately need a public enquiry to expose the corruption behind it. Unfortunately, this won’t happen as John Prescott abolished public planning enquiries some years ago and very few people raised any objections at the time.

  • David Keighley

    The government could also win huge additional support by abandoning their so-called green energy projects. Off the coast of Sussex, a vast £1.3bn bird-chopping ‘green’ eyesore called the Rampion wind farm is nearing completion. Environment Secretary Michael Gove recently apparently committed to building dozens more in pursuit of loopy ‘climate change’ targets – brilliantly eviscerated here by Clive James: https://www.thegwpf.org/content/uploads/2017/07/Clive-James.pdf In consequence, millions of potential Conservative voters are being clobbered with 12.5% fuel bill hikes. When will the Tories realise that in order to win votes, they have to devise policies that genuinely help people not harm them. The lessons of the most disastrous manifesto in Conservative history have not yet been learned.

    • ‘<David Keighley wrote:

      When will the Tories realise that in order to win votes … ‘

      When will voters realise that political parties are the problem and start voting for genuinely independent and accountable MPs?

  • Davidsb

    As to who would use any new line….. it would probably be a small number of high-powered lawyers, accountants and local authority bigwigs.

    You forgot all those northern MPs, whose outrageously expensive first class fares would be picked up by the country’s long-suffering taxpayers…..

    • Andrew Tettenborn

      I’m not even sure about that, unless you sit for some suburb of Birmingham, Manchester or Leeds. From somewhere like Middlesbrough it’s probably still quicker to take the old-fashioned train.

    • If they can afford to use this railway, by the time it has been built, it will probably be more cost-effective to hire a helicopter!

  • What I object to about it is that we are building it using what is simply updated 19th century technology. Meanwhile other countries are considering totally new ideas such as the train in a tube and electromagnetic levitation/propulsion. Not only that, from being the country whose engineers build railways around the world, we now have to employ foreign companies to build this new line.
    We should embrace new technology; the train in a tube is being considered by numerous countries, the latest is apparently for a possible link between Melbourne and Sydney.
    We should also consider safety; we are a highly populated country and it would be very easy to get a person or stray animal on the track which could derail a light-weight high speed train without any problem.
    We need something more imaginative than a 21st century version of a horse pulling a cart on wooden rails!

    • CRSM

      Trains with steel wheels on steel tracks still provide the lowest rolling resistance by far of any land transport.
      Elon Musk’s ‘Hyperloop’ in a tube may well work, but I can’t see it being commercialised for many decades.

      • My point is that this country seems to have lost the will to innovate. Not only that, we can’t even build railways (or Nuclear Power Stations) where we were once world leaders.

  • English Advocate

    I’ve seen it suggested that the main driver of the first phase of HS2 is to increase capacity for London commuter services from the Milton Keynes and Northampton areas – by getting the Glasgow and Manchester etc expresses off the existing line. It would be presentationally ticklish, however, to be overt about spending another shed load of money to benefit London. It’s possible that the rest of the HS2 project may be kicked into the long grass after this key initial objective has been achieved.

    If the rest does go ahead then it will in effect, as you suggest, be a Zil lane for elite people travelling on expenses. It’s also just as likely, as you also suggest, to draw business towards London rather than economically benefiting the regions. If the Government really wants to benefit the midlands and the north it should continue the electrification programmes (which Grayling has just cancelled) and invest in new rolling stock.

    PS: @RichardWellings on Twitter does some good updates on HS2 – and other topics.

  • Andy

    I just do not understand why the old Great Central line is ignored when a large amount of the track bed is still there and sat doing nothing. I’m sure it could be brought back into use and easy capacity problems, such as they are. They could also begin to improve the existing East & West Coast lines which again would create more capacity. It is yet another example – the best is the stupid Foreign Aid budget – of Governments and vain politicians like Cameron and Clegg wasting taxpayers money.

  • timbazo

    The question to ask is why the Government do not do the obvious. The answer lies I presume in Party funding.

  • Phil R

    HS2 the most expensive cycle route in the world by 2035.

    Technology had moved on, driverless cars were the future and it was clear by 2025 that Britain had invested in the wrong technology.

    Again…..

    Wrong? Last summer I drove from Calais at night to the middle of Germany in my wife’s new car with all the driverless bells and whistles. What was most surprising was it detected at night, in the spray, in Germany, a car overtaking a lorry in my lane doing only 120km/h and slammed on the brakes a good two seconds before I saw it travelling at 220km/h. After driving my wife’s car, I can see that driverless cars are the future. Boring perhaps, but the future.

    • Andy wrote:

      ‘ … driverless cars are the future.’

      I agree, however, they are, in social terms, no more significant than the evolution of android type phones, which combine the functions of transistor radios (Who remembers them?), clocks, cameras, calculators, typewriters and other devices. The social significance came from the development of each of those devices, not combining them into to a single device. Driverless cars are just a logical step forward. The current technological development with the most socially revolutionary potential is three dimensional printing, which those in control surely will not allow to develop uncontrolled for much longer. Expect a ‘terrorist’ atrocity using 3D printed weapons in the not too distant future.

    • CRSM

      The idea of a driverless car, traveling in the rain at 220km/h (nearly 140 mph) scares me witless.

      • Phil R

        Safer than my driving. …..

  • Dominic Stockford

    The time saved by this line will be lost be getting to and from the new stations. The money saved by dumping it will be gratefully not spent by the taxpayer.

  • You’re correct, of course. But what about all the graft that HS 2 represents, and is only getting rolling. It would make far more sense to upgrade lines all over the place, but that isn’t politically profitable, unless the UK is far more honest than the US, which is possible, but I wouldn’t bet much on it.

    What would make even more sense is to privatise the whole thing, for real this time, let them establish the market and if they can’t well, buses work fine. You cannot succeed if you cannot fail, and if the government is paying for it you cannot fail.

  • Dave S

    We should ask ourselves if our Victorian ancestors would have built this line. As they were using real hard earned cash certainly not unless the returns were substantial. The returns are all pie in the sky possibilities not real cash money receipts.
    So it will fail as a commercial venture which it surely should be in a real world situation.
    Vanity of vanities . But typical of a modern politician without sense or sense of responsibility to spending our wealth

    • Derek

      but the companies and lenders involved will do very well.

  • Bugle

    Who gets the contract? Siemens?

  • CRSM

    Go back to the original idea of fully electrifying the Midland Main Line so that there would be three conventional high-speed (125 mph) lines between London and the north.
    Electrify Brunel’s old lines west from Paddington to South Wales and to Plymouth, and at the same time update the Bristol, Birmingham, Derby line to the same standard.

    This would provide better regional transport at a fraction of the cost of HS2.

  • Derek

    HS2 is like the highly secret Hospital PFIs. The public cannot be told until contracts have been signed taking us to the cleaners with no get-out clauses.
    Both these projects emanated from the magic-money-tree spend-voter’s-money-until-their -eye’s water Labour. You know that these projects are rubbish as far as the public are concerned.
    Only open transparent government will create projects of benefit to the public.

  • Derek

    See Policy Implications of Autonomous Vehicles ‘https://www.cato.org/publications/policy-analysis/policy-implications-autonomous-vehicles’
    …Congress should stop funding expensive and obsolete rail transit projects, which will have no place in a future likely to be characterized by widespread sharing of self-driving cars…..

    Self-Driving Cars Are Going to Beat Up on Trains, Too
    https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2016/10/self-driving-cars-are-going-to-beat-up-on-trains-too/502430/
    …once the death spiral begins, it ain’t stopping, because the fixed costs of running a railroad are so enormous: “Even relatively modest reductions in passenger volume could turn respectable profits into massive losses; for example, a 20 percent reduction in passenger volume could turn a 5 perfect margin into a –10 percent margin…as AVs’ technology improves so that the cars become fully operational in residential areas, AVs will pose a threat to subway, commuter, and regional trains. At that point, AVs could conceivably cause an enormous shakeout in the rail industry.

    • Cato’s doing a bit of special pleading here, although they’re right. Passenger rail, other than Boston – Washington, and a a few other corridors economically died long ago, killed by the 707 and the Convair 880. Crippled our downtowns too. I actually prefer the train, but how to justify about 30 hours vs. 6? The money even with subsidized Amtrak is about the same. But if was showing a tourist America, then it’s the way to go. Other than a road trip, but they get tiresome, as well.

      But the US isn’t the same as the UK in this. To my eyes, the UK looks a lot like the Northeast Corridor – heavily populated, lots of congestion, a need to get to city center. Rail can work well for that situation, for both passenger and freight, just as it always has. In fact I doubt there is any reason it needs government money at all. Amtrak comes close in the NE, loses its butt on the rest, though, and it’s not entirely its fault. For us air makes the most sense, it does Russia too for the same reasons, that doesn’t mean it does you. Horses for courses as they say.

  • Nick Booth

    Surely if the government started its HS2 journey and didn’t have the correct fare, then by rights it should have to pay a massive punitive fine that costs even more than the original ticket.

    Isn’t it time we had public sector inspectors, dishing out On The Spot fines to these budget louts?