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Today’s judgments won't derail HS2 - but serious questions remain

High court rules on compensation over HS2.

The Department for Transport will, once again, be in the spotlight. Photograph: Getty Images

The Department for Transport will, once again, be in the spotlight today as the High Court gets set to rule on whether the government followed proper procedures before approving its HS2 rail project. Given the recent lamentable procedural failures over rail franchising, tension within the Department will likely be running high.

From the government’s point of view the best outcome is obviously a green light from the court. Not only will this save blushes at the Department, it will allow the coalition to push, full steam ahead – if that is the correct idiom for a project that will not bear fruit until 2033 – with what has become one of its flagship projects.

However, even if the judicial review does come down in favour of the protest groups it is unlikely that HS2 will be halted completely: in rail terms it will receive an amber light rather than a red one.

The protestors no doubt hope that any legal setback to the project will open the way for further challenges which will pull HS2 into a quagmire of reviews and disputes which could carry on until the government finally loses interest or, at least, until the next election is called.

This hope is probably in vain. Given the number of recent setbacks and U-turns the government will be in no mood, or position, to compromise over a scheme it has so solidly thrown its weight behind. Just like the weary commuter, waiting for the train back home after a long day at work, the government will likely accept the delay with resigned determination. This is doubtless helped by the fact that there is widespread support across the political spectrum for HS2. For many on the left it is one of those big infrastructure projects which not only creates jobs and opportunities but also helps to narrow geographical disparities between London and part of the country.

What the outcome of the judicial review will not do is resolve, conclusively, whether HS2 is a sensible idea. Here, so many questions remain unanswered.

There is the argument that the benefits of the spending should be spread more widely. For example, despite commitments on electrification, parts of the rail network in the South West remain chronically deprived of investment. Certainly, dividing the pot of HS2 money up more equally between the regions would produce a less dramatic, less visible end result. However, smaller incremental rail improvements across the country may yield a much greater economic benefit than one big, budget-busting project.

In many ways this is an argument about the need for speed. HS2 will certainly reduce journey times between London and the midlands and parts of the north, however, given the lofty sums of money involved the improvements are marginal at best. Moreover, given the fact that many people use their time on the train fairly productively – whether working or relaxing – there is a real question mark over whether a faster journey accrues genuine economic benefits. The debate is further complicated by the point that without improving regional transport connections – those roads and public transport services which feed into the stations HS2 serves – a reduction of time spent on the train probably becomes pretty pointless.

The one thing HS2 will certainly do is help improve capacity; something much needed on a rail network that is now bursting at the seams. However, HS2 is an expensive solution to this issue and there are simpler ways of increasing capacity. Adjusting the existing infrastructure to accommodate double-decker and longer trains, for example, would cost a fraction of HS2.

The answer to all of these points – and many more – will simply not come from the outcome of today’s review. Nor have they come from government, which has presented a less than compelling case for its policy. Only time and hindsight, it seems, will help us form a view of whether HS2 is a sound scheme. For now, the jury is still out.