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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder