Early this morning I Tweeted, in an off-hand and tangential sort of way, “I wonder how much good hunting country will be bisected by HS2?”. So inevitably, when I went on BBC Five Live an hour or so later, to talk about HS2, the interviewer wanted to couch the discussion in terms of the Tweet, and I had to struggle to get back to the heart of the issue.
Recently I was in an ultra-smart new office block near Birmingham, and was stunned to hear that the whole building was on the HS2 route, and would have to be demolished.
I don’t think we’ve thought carefully enough about this project. For a start, we must remember that Britain is a small, densely-populated country. Compared to France or Germany, we have much less space, and shorter distances between cities — and even more so compared to the USA or China. So with shorter distances and more frequent stops, the time savings on high speed trains are rather minimal in the UK compared to those other countries. And if, as seems to be the case, we have to have out-of town stations, then the taxi-ride into town will take more time than HS2 saves.
Railways are ideal for carrying coal across the USA, or China. They are much less useful for re-stocking a supermarket in Leicester. They are simply much less relevant in a geographically small country. And since 90%+ of our freight goes by road, while less than 10% goes by rail, maybe we should be spending more on our roads.
There are issues with rail capacity, but they could be addressed more cheaply, and with much less disruption, with longer platforms and more rolling stock on existing lines. And the main bottleneck on the rail system is on commuter traffic, which HS2 will do little to address.
I think the government is asking itself the wrong question. It’s asking “Would it be nice to have new High Speed Rail links in the UK?”, and the answer is naturally Yes – provided it doesn’t go through your backyard. It’s all about boys’ toys. Would your ten-year-old son like a Hornby Train Set costing a few hundred pounds? You bet he would! Would you like a sports car costing a few tens of thousands? Probably. The trouble is that politicians’ new toys come in at a few tens of billions, and at the tax-payers’ expense.
The question that the government should be asking is “If we have £32 billion to spend on infrastructure to boost the economy, is HS2 the best way to spend it?”. I think not.