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.