Space on trains: the only valid argument for HS2

Economic and jobs benefits will be negligible.

The case for the new high speed rail network - the route of which was announced today - is all becoming a bit muddled. Anticipating a backlash against the project, government spokespeople have been defending it all over the place. The trouble is, there are too many versions of the defence, and most of them just don't hold water.

A Department for Transport spokesman told the Telegraph:

HS2 will bring cities closer together, drive regeneration, tackle overcrowding and stimulate economic growth.

George Osborne said the new line would be:

..not just about cutting journey times – although it does cut in half the journey time from Manchester to London – it’s also about the new stations, the prosperity that’s going to come, the jobs that are going to be created around this infrastructure.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said:

It's not just about journey times, it is also about capacity. We are finding the railways are overcrowded. We've seen massive growth in rail passenger numbers, so this is taking HS2 so it serves the north.

The key claims for the line have been that a) joining London to the north and Midlands will help redistribute jobs, that b) the UK is behind the rest of Europe in terms of fast connectivity between cities, that c) the line will generally stimulate economic growth, and that d) rail transport is at capacity and we simply need more lines. Let's just unpack each claim:

a) The new HS2 will redistribute jobs.

The presence of a high speed rail will probably redistribute jobs. But it will most likely redistribute them in the direction of London and the South East. While Birmingham and Manchester (which both have stations on the new line) will also benefit a bit, this will be at the expense of the rest of the region. There won't be many stations, and the small towns which miss out on these will miss out economically too.

b) The UK lacks fast connectivity between cities compared to other places in Europe.

Although European trains are faster (France's TGV services have been reaching 200mph since 1981) - our cities are on average closer together. This means that journey times between major cities are actually faster than our European competitors, according to campaigners.

c) The rail line will stimulate economic growth.

The model from which the government is making these estimates is "exquisitely sensitive to small variations in growth assumptions", according to Dr J Savin, whose extensive financial analysis of the economic benefits of the line can be read here. Making broad claims about the economic advantages, he argues, is therefore distinctly shaky. He also writes that the uneven spread of benefits is not desirable either:

"A project that the entire UK pays for but that benefits two regions disproportionately, one of them being the richest parts of London, is hardly equitable."

d) We need more lines, as rail transport is at capacity.

In the final analysis, the only argument for the new HS2 that actually holds is that the rail services are too crowded. Network Rail told the BBC that the southern section of the West Coast Main Line will be "effectively full" by 2024. We do need more lines - but not for all the reasons the government is putting forward.

HS2 route was announced today. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.