The case for HS2

27th February 2013 Speeches

On Tuesday 26 February 2013, there was a short debate about HS2 in the House of Lords. The transcript of the whole debate can be found here and I have reproduced my speech below.

My Lords, the benefit/cost ratio for HS2 is strong, and stronger still once the high-speed lines extend north from Birmingham to Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds, with high-speed trains proceeding on conventional tracks through to Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow and Edinburgh. The proposed “Y” network—London to Birmingham, then north-west to Manchester and north-east to Leeds—encompasses much of the economic heart of England in one integrated high-speed network of 330 route miles.

I obviously appreciate that some who live on or near the 330 route miles are opposed to HS2. The golden rule of high-speed rail is that everyone wants the stations but no one wants the line. However, the business case is robust and the Government are right to proceed.

There have been claims that the benefit/cost ratio is too optimistic. Actually, for transport infrastructure such as HS2, connecting densely networked population and economic centres, BCRs tend to be too pessimistic because they have difficulty in capturing wider economic benefits. The Jubilee line extension to Canary Wharf and Stratford was approved with a BCR of just 0.95, less than half that of HS2. Traffic forecasts for the M25, when planned in the 1970s, grossly underestimated usage; it was dubbed the “road to nowhere”—famous last words.

In assessing the case for HS2, it is vital to understand that the status quo is not an option. Critics talk as if the choice were £33 billion for HS2 or a few billion for upgrading existing infrastructure. Sadly, this is false. Patching and mending a 200 year-old railway, working at capacity, is hugely expensive and disruptive. There is no need to gaze into the crystal ball. The last upgrade of the west coast main line, completed five years ago, cost £10 billion. It entailed a decade of constant disruption to passengers and freight, and it delivered only a fraction of the capacity and connectivity of HS2.

Capacity is the key issue. To provide just two-thirds of the extra capacity of HS2 from London to Birmingham by further upgrading the west coast and Chiltern lines, would cost more in straight cash terms than building HS2. For starters, with or without HS2, Euston needs to be rebuilt. It was built in the 1960s for barely half of today’s traffic levels and is falling down. Furthermore, extending HS2 to Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds relieves all three main lines from London to the north, all three of which would otherwise have to undergo massive—and massively disruptive—upgrades over the next 25 years.

There is no free lunch here. The choice is this: invest billions in a patch-and-mend of the Victorian railway, or invest a similar sum in 21st century high-speed rail technology, with far greater social and economic benefits, like pretty well every other developed nation in the world. We should invest in the future, not the past.

Be Sociable, Share!