High time to abandon the spurious case for a high-speed railway

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More and more people have been expressing doubts about Britain’s High Speed 2 project, which would build superfast railway links from London to the three largest conurbations in the rest of the UK – Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester – by 2033. I have been struggling through the arguments. They are as follows, in increasing order of strength.

First, since other European nations have lots of high-speed connections, Britain should spend £40bn doing the same. This observation does not merit a response.

Second, building HS2 would make an expensive and divisive expansion of Heathrow airport unnecessary. This argument deserves the cursory scrutiny needed to establish that no conceivable diversion of traffic from domestic air services would have a material impact on congestion at Heathrow.

Third, a new line is needed to relieve overcrowding on existing train services, which will emerge when demand doubles during the next 25 years. Long-distance travel in Britain is not increasing. But since privatisation in 1995 the share of rail, which has improved in quality, has increased; the share of road and air, which have diminished in quality, has declined. Rail demand might increase substantially further, or it might not. If it does, there are many strategies more flexible, and orders of magnitude cheaper, than a new high-speed line – such as running longer trains, making more use of sophisticated yield management systems, and increasing capacity on the existing lines.

Fourth, there will be large benefits, mostly to business travellers, from time savings. This discussion has degenerated into a dispute over how effectively people use time on trains. My experience of forced inclusion in their mobile phone conversations suggests that they do not.

But speculations on the value of passengers’ time miss the point. Many travellers – not just business users – would pay a premium, possibly substantial, for a faster journey. This amenity could and should be paid for by the travellers themselves, not conferred as a costly gift from taxpayers. Yet no one will back HS2 as a commercial project.

The remaining claim is that the prosperity of regions depends on good and improving connections to the capital city. This is a complex argument. The least successful, economically and culturally, of the three large regional conurbations in Britain is the closest to London. Ready access to the facilities of a capital is an advantage, but undermines the viability of similar facilities in provincial centres, as the depressing surroundings of Birmingham’s New Street Station demonstrate. Might it be better, and much cheaper, to improve train links between provincial cities themselves? The trip from Leeds to London by train today takes only slightly longer than the time to Birmingham or Liverpool, only half as distant.

Europe’s first high-speed link – from Paris to Lyon – helped establish a business centre in Lyon’s Part-Dieu quarter, near the station. But did the development there simply attract business from elsewhere in Lyon, or other French cities, rather than create activity that would otherwise not have taken place at all?

We do not know. Proper research into public projects of doubtful efficacy, such as HS2, would cost only a small fraction of the amount of public money at stake. The “business case” for HS2 does not merit the title of research. Instead, bogus modelling and sham consultation are used to give an appearance of due process rather than to illuminate real issues.

We need to understand more about the relationship between transport links and regional development before, not after, there is a commitment to spend £40bn – a sum that has escalated, and will continue to do so. Bent Flyvbjerg, professor of major programme management at Oxford university’s Saïd Business School, has shown that the tendency to underestimate costs and overstate use is even larger for rail schemes than for other grands projets.

The carefully argued Eddington report showed in 2006 that Britain’s creaking transport infrastructure needs a multitude of incremental improvements rather than a few extravagances. Advocates for HS2 have had five years to make their case. They have failed. If it goes ahead, it will dominate the UK’s investment programme for the next two decades. It would be better if it did not.

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