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Sorry rail buffs: Great British Public will always believe HS2 is a colossal waste of money

Sorry rail buffs: Great British Public will always believe HS2 is a colossal waste of money

🕔20.Sep 2013

There was no doubting the gold-plated credentials of speakers at the Greengauge 21 HS2 conference at Millennium Point in Birmingham.

Lord Deighton, Commercial Secretary to the Treasury and chairman of the HS2 Growth Task Force, headed a who’s who of railway buffs, which included Network Rail chief executive Sir David Higgins.

Sir David, we were told, was making a rare public speech about HS2. Surely this could not have been correct? On the other hand, given the dysfunctional nature of attempts to sell high speed rail to a sceptical British public, Sir David’s vow of silence until now explains a lot.

It being a room full of rail experts – lots of talk about ‘how I got here by train today, and what a fascinating journey via Crewe’ – there was never much likelihood of anyone straying from wholehearted support for HS2.

The aim of the conference was to “bring together the key people working at the leading edge of work to assess the wider impacts and wider benefits of HS2”.

These wider impacts and benefits can be distilled as: the creation of 89,000 jobs; the trickle-down effect of regeneration around HS2 stations; improved connectivity between markets in the North and Midlands and London; freeing capacity on the West Coast Main Line; and, naturally, very fast trains that can whisk you from Birmingham to London in little more than the time it takes to eat a bacon sandwich and drink a cup of tea.

The problem with all of this, of course, is that concepts like capacity and economic growth may be very worthy topics for discussion among academics, but they don’t amount to a hill of beans for the Great British Public which, I am sorry to say, generally regards HS2 as a colossal waste of money at a time of austerity when we are constantly being told that the Government is skint.

And therein lays the problem. The potential benefits of HS2 – jobs, growth, narrowing the north-south gap – are immense, but as Birmingham City Council chief executive Stephen Hughes put it, no one can actually be certain that the benefits will be delivered at the scale being promised.

Mr Hughes reminded the conference that economists can’t even reach agreement on UK growth figures at the moment, so how on earth can they predict with any certainty the impact in 10 or 20 years of HS2. The benefits of high speed rail were “unpredictable”, but the case for pushing ahead with the vision thing and being really bold and radical was undeniable, according to Mr Hughes.

What Mr Hughes was trying to say, I think, was that huge infrastructure projects are always very expensive and difficult to justify. The Romans, he reminded the conference, did not worry about cost-benefit ratios when building their very straight and long roads across England. They just got on and did it.

A better comparison would have been with the construction of the first railways 170 years ago. Some operators went bust, others made a fortune. It was all a huge gamble at the time. But it quickly became apparent to the Victorians that improved connectivity laid the conditions for bringing market places together and boosting trade in a way never experienced before.

Lord Deighton said he was genuinely interested in hearing what people really think about HS2, and promised to examine very carefully all of the issues being raised by protesters, and by agnostics who simply don’t know whether high speed rail is a good or bad thing.

He can travel the length and breadth of the country asking questions, but he must already know that a fundamental problem exists in convincing public opinion. And that is: how can Ministers put forward a plausible case for spending £50 billion on a railway when they are slashing government and local council spending by upwards of 30 per cent?

Quite possibly Lord Deighton will already have concluded that the Department for Transport must just go ahead and build HS2 in the knowledge that high speed rail is never going to be a vote winner. Sometimes, you just have to say ‘this is the right thing to do, and we are going to do it’.

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