I’m agnostic on HS2. In fact I have to admit I probably don’t have the technical expertise to make a decision — so I’m glad I’m not called on to do so. But I can recognise a duff argument when I see one.
We have a hundred of the bien pensant tendency writing to the Telegraph on December 6th to urge the adoption of HS2. They argue that investment in transport infrastructure is a pre-condition of economic growth. I agree. That’s an argument for infrastructure spending, but not necessarily an argument for HS2.
And they make much of the comparison between the UK, and Japan and France, which have a great deal more high-speed rail track than we have. They even compare us adversely with Morocco and Saudi Arabia, which (they claim) have much more HS track than the UK.
But it seems to me that they miss a key point. The UK is a (relatively) small, very crowded island. France has roughly the same population as us, but nearly three times the land area. Our population density (Wikipedia tells me) is 662/m2. (That’s miles, not metres!) Morocco has less that a third the population density, at 185/m2. And Saudi Arabia has only 31/m2.
Two key conclusions follow. First, a low population density makes it relatively easy to put new track in place without destroying existing homes, communities and other development. Secondly, low population density means that population centres are relatively widely spaced — so that high-speed land transport is especially valuable. Here in the UK we have less need for high-speed lines, and a much higher cost for installing them. In a word, comparisons with Morocco and Saudi are spurious, and practically irrelevant.
Then, I am convinced that we should not look at HS2 in isolation, by asking, simply, is it worth it or not? We should look at it against all the alternative ideas we might have. Is HS2 more important to the British economy than the alternatives — like (say) Boris Island?
Boris says that we’re losing out on trade with (and investment from) China, because there are far more flights from China to Germany than to the UK. We are jeopardising our position as a key business centre and as a magnet for foreign direct investment because access to the UK by air is so poor. Are all those thousands of Chinese (and Indian and Russian and Brazilian) investors going to come to the UK because we can cut twenty minutes from the London/Birmingham rail journey? Or are they going to come because they can get a flight to London?
Seems like a no-brainer to me. But then I’m not a transport expert.