Monday, 27 October 2014

The Great High Speed White Elephant

High Speed Rail 2 is a massive white elephant, a £50bn boondoggle of a project as out of time as it is over priced. Yet, despite this I am a little sore that the bid Stoke-on-Trent put forward for a station got dismissed out of hand. Were it on the basis of a competition in which its projections got weighed up against those of a rival's and found wanting, then fair enough. That didn't happen, and what we have been left with - the 'Crewe hub' - is the worst of all possible worlds.

I've never been sold on the economic benefits HS2 will bring. Sure, construction, engineering, and railway jobs will get created - though for the former as the line's first phase begins works from London towards Birmingham, this particular project won't be helping regional rebalancing in the build phase. Then there are the claims made for it. For instance, Cheshire East leader Michael Jones says:
The Crewe HS2 Superhub will produce 64,000 jobs and boost the North West’s economic output by £3.5bn per annum. It will act as a major gateway for the region, energising the northern powerhouse ... Overall, we believe that HS2 will unlock development sites throughout Cheshire and North Staffordshire for new offices, factories, warehouses shops and new homes.
Colour me sceptical. Slashing 20 minutes from the train journey to the capital from Crewe, and Manchester (and eventually) Liverpool will do all this. Or so we're told. The problem is there is absolutely no evidence it will produce anything like these benefits. This 2009 comparative analysis of high speed rail in Europe concludes, not entirely surprisingly, by noting "The economic appraisal of new lines has to look carefully to the deviated and generated traffic, the time savings, any additional benefit, and the users’ willingness to pay ... There are socially profitable projects, and others which are not." Helpful.

Then there is this (undated) piss and wind. For example, marshalling a great deal of expert criticism of HS2, Mike Geddes demonstrates that not only are the vast majority of jobs to be created temporary (for the duration of the construction) but that each new occupation comes at the cost of approximately £350,000.

Thirdly, as many, many people before me have pointed out a railway track is two-way. What's to say making it easier to get to London will not primarily benefit London, thereby exacerbating regional economic imbalances?

On the Stoke bid for a station, the economics of the decision to go for Crewe appear less than those for the Potteries. The city, Newcastle-under-Lyme, and Kidsgrove form a contiguous urban area of around 325,000 people - that's bigger than Nottingham. It has two universities, multiple colleges, arguably remains the world centre for ceramics manufacture and an economy and - incredibly - has something of a thriving tourist industry. The area would benefit tremendously from regeneration and it is unlikely its manufacturing businesses would disappear down the high speed rail track. The land for the station exists a stone's throw from the city centre and has the advantage of cheap and, at present, plentiful brownfield sites for exiled Londoners who decide to strike north. Furthermore, the route through Stoke would shave off a little bit of extra time and between £2.8bn and £5bn off the final bill. A much larger population as well would, you might expect, see any economic benefits outstrip those accruing to Crewe, which is approximately four times smaller.

And while Crewe is being magnanimous in victory and talking up the benefits HS2 there will bring Stoke, it's likely to damage the city. Firstly, the existing service from Manchester to Euston via Stoke will simply disappear. Whereas various services now run about three every hour to London, we'll be lucky if we see three trains a day. It means people wishing to head down the track will have to travel further afield to get the fast train, negating any benefits supposedly accruing from speed. Effectively, 320,000 people are being told that a reduction in service and a longer journey to Crewe will somehow spark off an economic renaissance of North Staffordshire. What a joke.

One does not like to by cynical, but when the stronger case for Stoke is simply dismissed without a serious review of the numbers, you have to ask if something else is going on. And sure enough, whereas the four seats comprising Stoke-Newcastle-Kidsgrove are Labour and unlikely to switch in 2015, Crewe and Nantwich is a Tory marginal facing a very strong challenge. Are the Tories really desperate enough to forego significant construction savings to keep hold of a swing seat? We live in times where the Prime Minister is happy to jeopardise Britain's relationship to the EU just to see off UKIP, so the answer is yes.

But the biggest problem is HS2 is a massive waste of money. To rejuvenate British capitalism in the 21st century, to give it an edge versus its competitors that £50bn can be much better spent. Wiring up every single home and business to the very latest in superfast broadband technology, sinking cash into cheap renewables, investing heavily in education - including abolishing tuition fees - would offer real tangible economic benefits and improve the quality of people's lives. HS2 may be expensive, but all it shows off is the poverty of Britain's ambitions.


Dawn Robinson-Walsh said...

Meanwhile, investment in rail transport infrastructure in Devon & Cornwall remains close to zero. Now we really do need train links! I generally drive 60 miles to catch a mainline train, which is not good for any kind of business. Your scepticism seems appropriate to me., and Stoke is a good example to use to highlight the uselessness of HSR2 to most people in the country. The areas it covers already have fast train links!

Phil said...

I honestly think Cameron & the people around him live in a kind of virtual world of pure politics, where the effect of any given policy on the Tory vote is literally all that matters. Can we take some comfort in the thought that he's not actually trying to wreck the place?

David Timoney said...

HS2 is merely the New Metropolitan Line. The bulk of the long-term benefits will accrue to London, and even the short-term economic boost is as likely to benefit the Chinese as much as domestic industry.

asquith said...

I am in full agreement with your statements, and have nothing in particular to add, apart from to say that your Westminster leadership doesn't appear to share your views. In the absence of any good reason for this, and the strength of local opposition, it's clear that some people in high places SERIOUSLY want this farrago to happen and will do their utmost to get it through. Why they think thus, I have no idea, but think it they do.

I emailed your mate Ruth Smeeth to ask what her stance was on the issue. I refrained from expressing my own views, so I'd get the views she held rather than what she wanted me to think she thought.

She said that she supported the efforts to have it sent to Stoke, but ceptin' this she would decide based on the precise detail of the exact proposal. (You can forgive an old cynic for interpreting this as "doing whatever Miliband and Balls decide Labour's line is going to be").

I think it's well-nigh impossible to get it to Stoke because, as you say, no one of any seniority wants it there, so the good and bad is irrelevant.

I have arrived at the view that the whole thing should not exist. They should be doing thangs that benefit the Dawn Robinson-Walshes of this world.

I once worked in Crewe. But it didn't occur to me to ask my colleagues what they thought of HS2 and now I don't see them. Apart from my mate who is also a Stokie and still lives there. Perhaps I will ask him to canvass opinion or something.

Ecological radical said...

Putting to one side (if that is possible) the role of subsidised railways in this phase of capitalism, a more prosaic problem with high speed rail can be expressed.

Door to door by motor has one major advantage over the use of public transport. It's door to door, almost! Assuming a number of minutes can be cut from the rail part of a journey from Birmingham to London, this just shows up further the journeys at either end from railway carriage to platform. Just how does a passenger take getting to a station, and how long negotiating that station from entrance to platform? Walking through stations alone can add 20 minutes to any journey, walking to bus stops or local rail lines, or parking a car, could add up to an hour. So, what's a few minutes less on the actual journey?

Maybe some sort of dedicated taxi service, from door to platform, right next to a train, might genuinely cut down the time of a journey, and then maybe a faster dedicated line might not even be needed.

Prosaic this may be, but most of us how long it takes to make a short plane journey - ages getting to the airport, and at least 2 hours being pushed around in the airport.

Anyway, given the major ecological crisis we are all in, these are minor criticisms. Better transport is essential, and publicly owned and controlled public transport at that. Not just for affluent passengers (if the rumoured HS fares are to believed, very affluent) but for freight. Improved rail is essential, these HS schemes are not.