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The government is finally getting the message on HS2

The fightback begins here. Today the government has finally launched a counter-offensive to the recent barrage of criticism of its plans for a new high-speed rail network

The last few months have seen increasing opposition to HS2 from business leaders and heavyweight politicians, while several reports have questioned its economic benefits and warned costs could soar to as much as £80bn.

When the likes of Peter Mandelson and Alistair Darling – key members of the government that signed off HS2 in the first place – turned against the scheme, it felt like a tipping point had been reached and that there was a genuine danger of the project becoming so unpopular it would be scrapped.

So proponents will welcome today’s report, commissioned by HS2 Ltd and produced by accountants KPMG, which found High Speed Two could boost the UK’s economic output by £15bn a year by 2037, with the Midlands and the North of England making strong gains as well as the South-East.

Perhaps more importantly, this has been accompanied by a subtle but significant shift in the government’s arguments and language. Until now, the scheme has largely been presented as a link between London and Birmingham (and later to the North) that will cut journey times and enable businesspeople to more easily travel the length of the country.

In a speech to the Institution of Civil Engineers, the transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin today attempted to change focus onto the need to increase capacity in our transport infrastructure and argue that HS2 won’t just benefit wealthy London-based executives but commuters up and down the country, including those who will never use the high-speed network.

Language is important. Even the name of this project doesn’t convey its benefits properly. Call it “High Speed Two” and you highlight the journey length rather than the more important capacity issue. Shorten it to “HS2” and it’s meaningless to most people. But if newsreaders start referring to a national network rather than a link between London and Birmingham then many more people might be persuaded of the scheme’s advantages.

What’s crucial, however, is having the right debate. The Engineer has been calling for the arguments over HS2 to centre on rail capacity for over a year now, because it is ultimately this issue that will determine whether the scheme is worthwhile or not.

It’s good to see the government addressing the mounting concerns that HS2 will only benefit a minority. It also needs to address the mounting costs. Finally, it needs demonstrate not only that passenger numbers really will outstrip existing capacity in coming years but also that the current plans are the best ones to deal with this problem. And then it needs to hope the train of public opinion hasn’t already left the station.

Readers' comments (29)

  • Yougov delivered a message too. Twice as many people are against than for.

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  • There is no need to spend £50billion or probably significantly more just to increase capacity.

    By electrifying and re-signalling the current system more proven conventional trains could run at significantly lower cost and sooner.

    It's all to do with politicians playing at politics, not public benefit.

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  • It's the wrong project. It should connect Glasgow to Stratford/St Pancras and then on to the Chunnel. Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham should be sidelines

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  • £80bn? careful preparation for the eventual cost to exceed £100bn as a number of us predicted at first sight, as this looks certain to be-literally-another gravy train with about 5% useful work output, 5:1 or even 10:1 overmanning- typical of the railways or public sector in general.

    Rail capacity? Now there's a thing. As one stands on a railway bridge and sees the incredibly low apparent utilisation of the track in terms of the time between the track's exposure to trains, then it is hard to believe that an intelligently managed and efficient railway system could not provide five or ten times the existing throughput on today's lines that they do now. Until clear data can be put in front of the increasingly few numerate people in this country, then the balance will be with the sceptics.

    Having to change the nature of the claimed benefits so much smacks of desperation and a recognition that there remains no case for this red elephant (ie a great Socialist waste).

    The fact remians that once any transport competition arrived in the form of road transport, railway was reduced to a place that can only have any relevance as a result of huge public subsidy. Nothing wrong with that necessarily if we admit it. But subsidy creates graft, and we know from history that this money will never go into services, even if the privatised railways are so much better than the Nationalised joke I grew up with. Subsidy=overmanning and inflated wages from top to bottom and ever more shall be so.

    Scrap the sad sick joke. Now.

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  • Frank Cook should remember that when the Tunnel was built, extra coaching stock was procured for just such use, however there was insufficient demand for such services and the train sets were sold later.

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  • The issue isnt the project but the burgeoning cost - £50Billion will be better spent on securing our energy supplies for the next 30/40 years investing in new nuclear builds

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  • I fully agree with the comment about the length of time a track is unused between trains. I’m sure it is to ensure a safety gap between each train using the line, but surely the recently developed self-drive systems for cars could be easily integrated into the rail system, thereby increasing capacity at far less cost than HS2.

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  • The BBC article today states there will 500,000 fewer lorry journeys a day. I didn't realise it was a freight line, but that sounds remarkably good to me.

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  • HS2 isn't a freight line, but its existence would mean that the existing line could be used more for freight than it currently is.

  • "...and enable businesspeople to more easily travel the length of the country"

    This is a spurious argument in these days of conference calls and video conferencing, not to mention the telephone! Businesspeople do not need to travel the length of the country (London - Birmingham?) on a regular basis.

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  • HS2 is a politicians' vanity project. They need to believe thay're making a difference so they can't allow it to fail. Hubris.

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