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Business leaders call on government to abandon HS2 "folly"

We may now have reached a point where opponents of HS2 outnumber its supporters. 

Until recently, the loudest objections to the controversial high speed rail project have come from those whose homes, villages and towns stand along its proposed route (NIMBYs as they’re often unsympathetically dubbed)

But in recent months and weeks opposition to the project has widened -  with business leaders, economists and a number of senior politicians all calling for the scheme to be abandoned.

Last week, the Institute of Economic affairs  warned that the cost of the scheme could rise to more than £80 billion (almost double the government’s estimated 42.6bn price tag). The influential think-tank - which has long been critical of the scheme -  called for it to be scrapped and for the money to be spent on other transport projects.

Meanwhile, support within the Labour party - which has put a £50bn cap on the cost of the project - is looking increasingly fragile. Shadow Chancellor  Ed Balls isn’t thought to be a fan, whilst former Chancellor Alistair Darling  - who approved the project whilst in office - no longer supports the scheme, and fears that it could soak up the cash required for investment elsewhere in the rail network.

But this week’s survey from the Institute of Directors (IoD) - represents one of the strongest attacks yet. One of the chief arguments advanced by the government in favour of HS2 is the economic benefits it will bring; and yet around 70 per cent of those taking part in the IoD survey, business people at the sharp end of the UK economy, said the scheme would have no impact on the productivity of their business. 

In a strongly worded attack, the IoD’s Director General Simon Walker described HS2 as “one grand folly” and called on the government to abandon the scheme and focus on smaller transport projects such as station upgrades, electrification and capacity improvements .

Interestingly, amongst all of the coverage of the IOD survey one point keeps emerging: criticism of the government’s claim that a high speed link will help businesses cut down on unproductive travelling time.

Clearly, productivity is an important issue for businesses. But in the context of a huge £50bn infrastructure project, how business people spend their journey time is a pretty minor issue.  Indeed, the fact that such a relatively minor point has even entered the debate is illustrative of where the HS2 lobby has gone wrong: continually trotting out spurious unproveable economic claims rather than focusing on practical issues. 

As we’ve frequently argued in The Engineer the key issue here is whether or not HS2 represents the best solution to the UK’s future rail capacity requirements, and the project’s supporters haven’t done a particularly impressive job of convincing people that HS2 is the best option.

With opposition to HS2 now becoming increasingly widespread and vociferous, its future hangs in the balance.  Its supporters must now work doubly hard to put capacity  - rather than spurious economic arguments - at the heart of the debate about our future rail network.

Readers' comments (26)

  • How about 1 billion pounds of investment in R&D and 49 billion pounds of infrastructure for high speed data coms that could negate the need for people to travel with such speed and frequency as HS2 offers?

    HS2 is nowt but a shiny white elephant; a glory project; a technological throwback in the data age.

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  • I have been in two minds over HS2 - trying to balance the White elephant/vanity project/folly/ripping up the countryside argument against the bold/visionary/what if the Victorians had thought this way one. Having previously read the articles in the Engineer pointing out that one of the bigger benefits of HS2 would be the capacity increase, and that the '10 minutes quicker to Birmingham' argument was missing the point, I had thought that this bold move to improve our infrastructure was the way to go. Now with the spiralling cost projections of the project, for me the balance shifts - it really is time to look at the alternatives to achieve the increased capacity within existing rail corridors - or by other cheaper means, like a new north to south freight line (what happened to the proposal to use the old Great Central track beds for this?)

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  • HS2 plans to link somewhere near Euston to certain locations slightly faster than now. That's all it does! It does little to improve door-to-door times for the vast majority of people in their entire lifetimes. A well-structured road network does that. And if we really must invest in rail (why!!) then provide something that barely exists now like a fast shuttle running between park-and-ride sites near Liverpool-Warrington-Manchester-Leed-Hull. Many people don't live or work in city centres so reinforcing transport routes through city centres is wasting time and compounding congestion.

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  • HS2 is more than a matter of concern by a few “Shire NIMBY’s”, it is all of OUR money, being spent before we have it and at interest. On a project that most now believe is the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time. That is why it is so important to stop this madness before it costs us any more than it has already.

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  • A Blair-style vanity project from the start; costs already rocketing and the originally alleged economic benefits already massively eroded.

    A sad, sick joke that should be binned now before more money is wasted.

    If it has economic benefits and offers a real return, let it be privately funded. However, all we would see then is that for the most part, rail is a money pit of inefficiency, gross overmanning, gross overpaying and inadequate use of infrastructures as long as there is any competition.

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  • Ditch HS2 and spend the money on the existing network. Capacity issues, we used to have longer trains; had fast and slow lines in the main trunk routes. Signalling is slicker and safer so integration of train operators should be better than the past. HS2 is for those who can afford it at the detriment of the majority of rail users.

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  • "help businesses cut down on unproductive travelling time"...

    As motorways are by far the safest roads in the UK, let's increase the speed limit on 3 or more lane m'ways to 160kph, enforce lane discipline and save a lot more time.

    HS2 is now being shown for what it has always been... a way to make a few rich people even richer with no discernible benefit to the taxpayers who fund these extravaganzas.

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  • It really is no wonder that this country is becoming a global joke, if we can't just for once JFDI. We could scrap HS2, spend another £10million and 5 more years on more consultants to devise a different scheme, which some other NIMBYs (along with the anti-everything brigade and the treer-huggers) would then mount a campaign against, apend a further 5 years debating before scrapping that and going round the whole loop again ad-infinitum. Or just for once we could do as our forebears did and take the leap of faith, ignore the nay-sayers, get the job done and enjoy whatever benefits it brings. Every time we have a prestige project in this country we allow the wets their like to strangle it at birth.
    And yes the existing rail infrastructure could also do with upgrading, but it should not be either or, it should be both.
    Still, we could always waste the money on another pointless military intervention in somewhere which has nothing to do with us to make some politician feel smug.

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  • Who will be the people using HS2?
    Politicians using expenses paid for by the tax payer.
    Who else will be regular weekly users?

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  • @Steve: Business Leaders don't want it, the Public don't have a need for it. THERE IS NO POINT IN HAVING IT.

    The main reason for HS2 was to encourage economic growth, this can't be achieved by the HS2 scheme.

    Best place for Infrastructure investment would be upgrading of existing lines, re-opening of old lines and more High Speed data links.

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