By Stephen Robinson, September 15, 2013
Three years ago it must have seemed such a good idea. High Speed 2 would connect London to Birmingham and, from there, the 225mph super locomotives would thunder up to Leeds and Manchester.
It sounded so modern, so forward-looking, so Continental — a reflection of the gee-whizz new style of David Cameron’s Coalition Government.
But now, that high-speed dream is becoming a slow motion nightmare as costs mount by the billion and one of the Government’s transport experts conceded this week the much-trumpeted economic benefits are spurious.
Unpopular: Support for the new High Speed 2 rail route between London and the North is waning as the costs continue to rise
How things have changed since Mr Cameron, having inherited an economic crisis from the outgoing bankrupt Labour government, dreamed of a way to securing political immortality — just like his predecessors — through the creation of an eye-catching, major infrastructure project.
In the Fifties, Harold Macmillan, another patrician old Etonian Tory, had inspired the building of 300,000 houses a year; Margaret Thatcher gave the go-ahead to the Channel Tunnel rail link; for Mr Cameron, HS2 would be the fast route to a legacy.
He was well aware that he could do nothing about the one infrastructure project that Britain did desperately need — a third runway for the capital’s hub airport — because the Tories and LibDems had set themselves against the expansion plan before the election.
So, rather than aggravate West Londoners living in marginal Coalition-held seats situated under the Heathrow flight path, he took the fateful decision to endorse HS2, even if this was, in electoral terms, a targeted assault on loyal Tory voters who lived near its proposed route in the Chilterns, and all points north.
Opposition: Members of STOP HS2 pictured yesterday with a 10 foot high inflatable white elephant outside parliament as Secretary of State for Transport Philip Hammond and the staff of HS2 Ltd give evidence to the Transport Select Committee inquiry of HS2
But now, cross-party political support for HS2 is unravelling faster than you can say: ‘Mind the Gap.’
The Department for Transport is in a state of turmoil as its vast press office and battalions of consultants fight to keep HS2 on track as the projected costs rise exponentially.
In the summer, the increasingly embattled and enfeebled Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin had the awkward task of confessing to Parliament that his department had underestimated the cost of HS2 by a matter of £10 billion.
Yes, the original price of more than £32 billion seemed bad enough, until it was upwardly revised to £42.6 billion, plus another six billion or so for the new rolling stock which, unbelievably, had somehow been overlooked.
Supporter: Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin this week tried to claim HS2 would generate a boost to the economy of £15 billion every year
As the great U.S. Senator Everett Dirksen said, while reflecting in the Fifties on the American government’s capacity for vacuuming up unlimited quantities of taxpayers’ money: ‘A billion here, a billion there — pretty soon, you’re talking real money.’
On Wednesday, Mr McLoughlin, in a desperate effort to bolster crumbling support for the rail project, repeated the outlandish claims of the management consultants (KPMG, who received £200,000 of taxpayers’ money) that HS2 would somehow ‘generate’ an annual boost of £15 billion to the economy.
Professor Dan Graham, of Imperial College, London, a highly-respected adviser to the Government on infrastructure projects, including HS2 and Crossrail, was not impressed.
Questioning the entire basis of the unusual financial modelling used for the report, Prof Graham tartly commented: ‘These numbers really need to be scrutinised, otherwise they could turn out to be fanciful.’
His scepticism is echoed by countless others, including Richard Wellings, of the Institute of Economic Affairs.
He says: ‘This loss-making project fails the commercial test, while standard cost-benefit analysis shows it to be extremely poor value for money. The Government has therefore employed consultants to boost the economic case for the scheme.’
Meanwhile, the cost guesstimates continue to rise, and no one believes even the upwardly revised £50 billion figure, which is already out of date as it based on 2011 values.
As London’s Mayor Boris Johnson has unhelpfully pointed out: ‘This thing isn’t going to cost £42 billion, my friends. The real costs going to be way north of that. Keep going till you reach £70 billion, and then keep going.’
The truth is, the political weather has changed abruptly for the worse for HS2. When the Mayor is out on manoeuvres questioning the wisdom of spending on grand projects — of which he is normally much enamoured — you can be sure he has smelt a potential opportunity to outflank his old rival the Prime Minister.
Poor value for money: The boost that those behind HS2 claim the project will have on the economy has been called in to question by experts
In any case, as a rule of thumb, it is always wise to be suspicious of any policy supported by all the major political parties. Like gay marriage and ring-fenced foreign aid spending, HS2 has enjoyed self-congratulatory support in the House of Commons, and very little enthusiasm around the country.
Thanks to Lord (Peter) Mandelson, we now know that HS2 was from its inception designed as a political stunt in the dying days of Gordon Brown’s administration.
The economic rationale was never tested, Mandelson has since confessed, and nor was sufficient attention given to ‘the massive disruption to many people’s lives construction would bring’.
Indeed so, though it would be unworthy to suggest that the fact that his lordship’s magnificent home on the fringes of London’s Regent’s Park might be sullied by the construction nearby of the first few hundred yards of track, might have triggered his intervention.
Showing belated candour, Mandelson gave the game away about how HS2 became Labour policy in 2010. ‘We were on the eve of a General Election and keen to paint an upbeat view of the future,’ he says.
A Stop HS2 poster on a railing in Wendover, Buckinghamshire, where the rail route is planned to run near to
The last Labour Chancellor, Alistair Darling, has also declared he is now a sceptic.
Indeed, it seems that we are witnessing the Great HS2 Train Robbery of the British taxpayer, as cynical and cunning as the show put on by Ronnie Biggs in 1963, and one with much more devastating consequences for the hundreds of thousands of people whose homes will be blighted by a project that won’t be completed until 2033.
Labour set the trap, trumpeting a gigantic infrastructure project to bring untold riches to the party’s electoral heartlands in the North, and Mr Cameron took the bait.
Yet although it is sticking in his throat and enraging his own natural supporters, he continues to take the poison.
David Cameron has vowed to fight back against an 'unholy alliance' attacking plans for a new high speed rail line
This would take the trains away from some of the more salubrious parts of the Chancellor George Osborne’s Tatton constituency in Cheshire.
Given our collective tendency to deprecate our lousy road and rail networks, it is easy to overlook the fact that Britain is relatively well served by trains. Most of our workhorse trains run faster than non-high speed trains on the Continent.
The high-speed train model works best in connecting vast conurbations which are far apart, as are usually found in Asia. But such trains, which need to run on straight lines, are not well suited to squeezing through crowded British cities.
These truths have been ignored from the beginning.
From the outset, the economic case for HS2 was made by cooking the books and overlooking the fact that shaving a few minutes off the journey-time between London and Birmingham is, in terms of raising productivity, irrelevant.
Most damningly, the National Audit Office found the economic assumptions behind the new rail link baseless, a view endorsed by an incredulous Margaret Hodge, Labour chairman of the Public Accounts Committee.
She said: ‘We have been told that it will deliver around 100,000 jobs but there is no evidence that all these jobs would not have been created anyway.’
She went on to say that transport bosses had ‘belatedly identified errors in its calculations that have wiped £12 billion off the expected benefits’ and left themselves ‘no room for mistakes’.
Campaigning: Ukip leader Nigel Farage claims his councillors now represent 50,000 disgruntled voters living near the proposed HS2 route in Buckinghamshire
As the business case for HS2 has collapsed, so Patrick McLoughlin has begun to suggest the rail link is not about reducing journey-times after all, but about bringing new capacity to the East and West Coast lines.
This sudden change of emphasis seems to ignore the fact that other — simpler and much cheaper — steps could be taken to increase the number of seats on the current rolling stock.
For example, most platforms can be lengthened; extra carriages put on; first class capacity reduced; signalling improved.
The minister also seems to be overlooking the fact that much of the worst overcrowding on Britain’s network is not south to north, but east to west, as anyone trying to get to Reading from London knows to their cost and discomfort.
But, of course, you don’t win yourself a grand legacy in politics with mundane things such as putting a few extra carriages on the back of a Virgin Pendolino train. No, David Cameron seems to aspire to something much grander.
The consequences of this folly and false logic are disastrous for hundreds of thousands of people.
Sceptic: Former chancellor Alistair Darling said HS2 could turn into a 'nightmare' because of soaring costs, adding the economic benefits of the scheme were 'highly contentious'
Indeed, blocks of council flats in the London borough of Camden would have to be bulldozed as part of the scheme which would involve the expansion of Euston station.
Also, Camden Market, a magnet for young visitors from all over the world, would become a vast building site for up to eight years with railway bridges having to be replaced to carry double-decker HS2 trains.
Most ridiculously of all, the Government has sought to parade the ‘green’ credentials of this folly when, in truth, HS2 amounts to one of the greatest acts of environmental vandalism in our history.
More than 130 wildlife sites on the route to Birmingham will be directly affected. The line will cut through the Meriden Gap, the green lung that has successfully stopped Birmingham sprawling right into Coventry.
Environmentalists normally support big public transport projects because they reduce the use of cars, but not this one.
As the Green Party points out, HS2 trains will be huge users of electricity, drawing twice as much power as an existing Intercity train.
And then, of course, there are the 300,000 or so householders who live directly by the planned route and who are likely to suffer blight. These human stories from Buckinghamshire and Warwickshire have been well-documented. In those areas, some locals consider themselves ‘lucky’ if they live in houses that would have to be demolished — because at least their property would be compulsorily-purchased by the Government.
Much worse off, though, are those who live a couple of hundred yards away from the proposed new track. They face years of construction disruption, then noise from the trains. Once lovely homes cannot be sold at any price. Home-owners who are divorcing, or having another baby, or simply want to move, are trapped, unable to sell up.
Neighbours in Great Missenden gather to protest against the HS2 route through their village
It is an astonishing situation, so much human misery for such a flawed project producing so little in return.
Meanwhile, the remaining true believers hope that if enough money is spent, the project will reach the point of no return and will have to go ahead. Spending by the quango HS2 Ltd — which is a funnel through which your money passes to lawyers, consultants and public relations companies — is approaching £300 million, and not a sod of Chiltern earth has been cut.
By the next election, £1 billion will have been spent on a project that may never actually happen.
The main political beneficiary of this nonsense is Ukip leader Nigel Farage, who cheerfully boasts that since the May local elections, Ukip councillors now represent 50,000 HS2 blighted voters and their families, most of them in Buckinghamshire.
‘The Government needs to get the message,’ he says, ‘that people have had enough of being treated with contempt by Conservative ministers on this issue.
‘Instead of throwing good money after bad, Cameron should be scrapping this white elephant that is destroying so very many lives and businesses.’
Mr Farage makes a good point. How did the Prime Minister become so detached from his natural supporters to advocate what is really a Labour-inspired big government folly.
And, more importantly, does David Cameron have the courage — and humility — to blow the whistle on a project that seems to be discredited on every front.