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Could HS2 follow TSR2 and Maplin Sands to the Treasury knacker’s yard?

Could HS2 follow TSR2 and Maplin Sands to the Treasury knacker’s yard?

🕔27.Aug 2013

It is November 2015 and Britain’s new Labour-Lib Dem coalition is about to announce the findings of an emergency public spending review.

Prime Minister Alistair Darling, who took over as Labour leader at the end of 2014 when Ed Miliband stood down after blaming “intolerable media speculation” about his apparent inability to win an election, is in the mood to cut spending on what he terms “unnecessary projects”.

Chancellor Ed Balls has little hesitation in bringing the axe down on HS2, the London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds high speed rail project, whose estimated costs have soared from an initial £40 billion to £125 billion.

Darling pledges to make half of the cost of HS2 – £60 billion – available for a range of public transport schemes across the country including local rail services, trams and buses.

Newspapers, ever suspicious of large-scale infrastructure projects, love this turn of events. ‘Darling’s got Balls’, screams the Sun, somewhat predictably.

Could this happen? The answer, sadly, is yes it could.

The Institute of Directors today became the latest business organisation to get cold feet on high speed rail, calling for the “grand folly” of HS2 to be scrapped. Britain’s chambers of commerce are lukewarm about high speed rail, having previously supported the project.

Earlier this month Mr Darling, who signed off the project when he was a member of the Labour Government, called for HS2 to be halted on the grounds of spiralling cost. Pretty much all Government infrastructure money would have to be diverted to high speed rail, leaving nothing for other projects, he claimed.

His change of heart drew a thinly veiled comment from shadow chancellor Ed Balls who declared: “There’s no blank cheque from a Labour Treasury for HS2, it’s got to be value for money.”

In Birmingham, where the economic case and job creation aspects of HS2 are immense, MPs appear to be getting cold feet. Roger Godsiff (Lab Hall Green) told The Times that he’d far rather have an integrated metro system (even though this is not on the table). HS2 would merely “get businessmen from London to Birmingham half an hour quicker”, he complained.

Even Gisela Stuart (Lab Edgbaston), who can normally be relied upon for a common sense approach, is reported as indicating that Mr Darling may have a point about the “unsustainable” cost of HS2.

It’s not as if Labour doesn’t have a reputation for taking a sharp axe to transport projects, condemning them to the Treasury knackers yard.

As former Transport Minister Lord Adonis points out in an impressive article in the New Statesman, the first act of incoming Labour governments in the past has often been to cancel hugely important infrastructure schemes on the grounds of cost, and because they represent ‘Tory vanity projects’.

This hair shirt approach led, as Lord Adonis reminds us, to the cancellation in 1974 of the Channel Tunnel project and the plan to build a new airport for London at Maplin Sands.

Scrapping the Maplin Sands airport proved to be a dreadful missed opportunity for which the country is still paying in terms of an ever-more fractious search for airport capacity in London and the South-east. Halting the Channel Tunnel simply put back the day when the link would be built, under a Conservative government.

Lord Adonis could also have mentioned TSR2, the British Aircraft Corporation’s brilliant cold war strike and reconnaissance aircraft developed as a prototype in the early 1960s but scrapped by Harold Wilson’s Labour Government in 1965 on the basis that at £16 million per aircraft and £1.7 billion over 15 years it was just too expensive.

It was decided to order American F-111 aircraft instead, a calamitous error since the plunging pound and escalating costs of the aircraft purchase costs meant that the Government ended up spending far more on an American fighter-bomber plane than would ever have been the case with TSR2.

Lord Adonis, who suggests it would be a case of “national self-mutilation” to cancel HS2 six years into the project, gives a timely reminder of why this scheme is about far more than fast trains.

“For the key justification is not speed but capacity. There will be an acute shortage of transport capacity from the 2020s to convey freight, commuters and other passengers into and between the major conurbations of London, the West Midlands, the East Midlands and South and West Yorkshire.

“Since there is no viable plan, let alone political will, to build new motorways between these places, or to dramatically increase air traffic between them, this additional capacity must largely be met by rail or Britain will grind to a halt. Rail is, in any case, the most efficient and green mode of transport for mass passenger and freight movements.

“To meet this capacity crunch there is a simple choice: upgrade existing (mostly Victorian) rail lines and stations, or build entirely new lines and stations. Upgrading existing lines is hugely expensive and yields far less additional capacity than building new lines: the last major upgrade of the West Coast Main Line from London to Birmingham and Manchester was recently completed at a cost of £10 billion, after a decade of disruption, and yielded only a fraction of the capacity improvements of HS2.”

This then, simply, is the essence of HS2. Not only does the project bring the great market places of London, the West Midlands and the North of England closer together, it frees capacity on the overcrowded West Coast Main Line.

And as Lord Adonis hints, cancellation of HS2 would force yet another ‘modernisation’ of WCML, possibly involving building an entirely new line, with unbelievably high financial and environmental costs in terms of demolishing homes and businesses.

Government failure to commit to neither HS2 nor a new WCML is unthinkable, although given the history of short-termism in this country quite likely. Such an outcome would see public transport between the North, Midlands and London simply grind to a halt, with consequent public fury that would make the HS2 debate seem very timid in comparison.

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