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20 January 2020

Evening Call: HS2’s price tag may be soaring – but it’s never really been about speed

It's the capacity, stupid.

By Jonn Elledge

We’re entering the last third of January, so there’s a fairly good chance that you, like me, are broke. But things could be worse because one major government project has just seen its projected cost balloon by £50bn. See, that overdraft doesn’t look quite so bad now does it?

The project in question is HS2, the proposed high-speed rail link between London, Birmingham and all points north. When originally proposed in 2015, it was projected to cost £56bn. Now a government-commissioned review, leaked to the Financial Times, puts its possible cost at £106bn.

The review calls on the government to put the second phase of the link – the stretch north of Birmingham – on hold, to see whether a mixture of standard and high-speed rail could do the same job. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, who has the definite air of a man with a red pen and a strong desire to use it, has demanded more facts before he makes a final decision on whether the project goes ahead.

The news has prompted, well, all the comments you’d expect it to prompt. Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, and Judith Blake, the well-respected leader of Leeds city council, have both suggested that any attempt to water down the project would amount to short-changing the north. The Railway Industry Association – it’s possible that these guys have a financial interest here – has gone further, arguing that any back-peddling would be “devastating” for the industry.

Meanwhile, the assorted people who think HS2 is a massive waste of public money, or an environmental disaster, or an attempt to drain yet more of the north’s life and economy towards the capital (delete to taste) have been out and about saying that this latest news has shown they were right all along.

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What has been missing from the debate, as ever, is any discussion of what HS2 is actually for. The project is generally discussed as an attempt to bring the cities of the Midlands and the north closer to the capital, which makes it easy to dismiss with snotty lines like, “How will shaving 20 minutes of the journey between Birmingham and London rebalance the economy?”

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But actually, speed isn’t really the point: capacity is. HS2 not only provides an alternative to the West Coast Main Line between London and Milton Keynes, one of the busiest and most over-crowded sections of railway line anywhere in the world. (At the moment, a signal failure in Watford Junction can basically paralyse the country, as happened in 2018.) It will also allow segregation between local and intercity trains in several parts of the country. That means you can run more of the former without the latter banging into them, effectively opening up space for more suburban services as well as high-speed ones. (The Independent’s Jon Stone is great on this.)

Does that make it worth spending £106bn on? Maybe, maybe not. I can entirely believe that cheaper versions of the project – perhaps lower-speed ones – are plausible, although whether the cost-saving is enough to justify the opportunity cost of scrapping HS2 and starting again, I have no idea.

But it’s worth remembering, as this row inevitably rolls on, that a slightly quicker journey to Birmingham is really not the point of the exercise.

Good day for…

Rebecca Long-Bailey, who, after a lacklustre start to her Labour leadership campaign, frankly needs all the good days she can get. Unite, the UK’s second-largest trade union, won’t announce its nomination until Friday – but one key faction within it, United Left, has just backed the shadow business secretary. Patrick reports here.

Bad day for…

Whoever replaces the recently-resigned Tony Hall as director general of the BBC, because – between a hostile government, a painful financial settlement, and more competition for the audience – it sounds like the job from hell. Roger Mosey explains why here.

Quote of the day

“Pretty sure no one on earth is as embarrassed about their ex as Billie Piper is this week.”

Twitter user @thewrongtom, responding, we are left to infer, to actor Laurence Fox’s gradual transformation into a cheap Katie Hopkins impersonator, the latest stage of which involved tweeting a picture of some steak and chips because of cruelty to vegetables something, something. (Alternative quote of the day: “Potatoes are vegetables you blithering idiot” – pretty much the entire internet.)

It is curious how right-wing shitposting is such a profitable career option for the washed-up these days, yet there’s no left-wing equivalent, isn’t it? Or would be, if we couldn’t all guess at the explanation.

Everybody is talking about…

Yesterday’s Sunday Times story, concerning the possibility that the government could relocate the House of Lords to York. Stephen has written about it, and explained why the government has more of an interest in appearing to help the north than in actually doing so, here.

Everybody should be talking about…

Britain’s post-Brexit foreign policy. Interesting piece on that topic, and how British policymakers are not taking enough account of the rise of China, from former DfID SpAd Richard Darlington here.


Questions? Comments? Drop me an email.

There won’t be a newsletter tomorrow, as it’s my day off. I’ll instead be walking the length of the South Bank, from London Bridge to Richmond, with one of my oldest friends, and, quite possibly, live-tweeting it.

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