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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)

  • What about Elon Musk's new hyperloop? Cheaper! Faster!

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  • ...and completely unproven!

  • I also thought HS2 would be a good thing - a prestige project taking some of the load off the existing, heavily loaded infrastructure. (Saving 10mins on travelling from London to Brum seemed a bit pointless though, and I might never see it reach Derby.)
    As a fillip to British technology and manufacturing, it never stood a chance: the Thatcher government let that one go by years past when it failed to sponsor the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. Bombardier might design and build trains in Derby, with a British workforce, but it is not a British company.
    So, I'm now awakening from that dream: HS2 is a brilliant idea but it is going to make negligible difference - improvement - to our transport/travel problems. And us all climbing into cars won't help either, there is still a place for a good train service, so let's spend some of that B£40+ on systematic developments to the railways that improve our lot.
    But why was HS2 so popular? (Or am I just mishearing loud touting?) Many will still be taken by the daring grandiosity, high-tech boys toys aspects of it, but is that all? Perhaps, to borrow a plot device from 'Yes, Minister', is it that the Civil Service now has as many graduates from Birmingham University as from Oxbridge? Or is it that they perceive Birmingham, with its new concert hall and an uprated international airport just down the road (and lower property prices), to be a better place to live than London?
    And think of the advantages of a non-stop train ride where you're not jostled every ten minutes by fellow passengers leaving and new ones joining!

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  • HS2 might have 1/2 a case if it connected directly on the end of HS1 and so allowing direct connection with Europe without the losing the time saved from Birmingham & partially removing that obstruction to commerce that London represents to the rest of the country.

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  • People will still be travelling long distances by electrified trains long after the oil has run out or become too expensive for private travellers to use, long after we have a high speed, high definition IT infrastructure and long before an affordable low emission none oil burning plane has been developed. We will still be generating electricity, from whatever sources are then available hence the push, alongside HS2 to electrify much of the as yet unwired existing network starting with the Great Western and Midland main lines, electrification of both of which is now underway.

    The mistake made in the UK was wasting 20 years messing around with the ownership of the railways following an even longer period of under investing in them whilst our neighbours in Europe were seeing the need for and benefits of building high speed railways and just getting on with it. Ownership of the railway was never the problem the ability to plan and invest long term in a short term political and economic system was. Had we continued to lead the field in railway R&D on the back of a sustained UK investment programme the UK high speed network would be in place by now at a fraction of the cost of building it in one go as we now have to do. Then, maybe, we would still have successful, competitive train and infrastructure manufacturing industries and instead of having to import these technologies we would have a thriving export market for them.

    It is possible to traverse France, Spain, Belgium, Germany and Italy by high speed train now and these are the trains used by the majority of travellers on the major routes. I recently travelled from London to Germany by Eurostar, Thales and ICE trains never using other than high speed trains in either direction. China, Australia and even the United States are among many countries building or planning to build high speed rail networks, why are we still debating the need?

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  • I might agree with it if they were to do the whole thing in one go or at least start at the other end. Otherwise I think it may just encourage people to live around Birmingham and commute to London. I'd rather see money invested in driverless trains as this would allow much more frequent smaller trains at the same cost.

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  • The UK seems to have problems with large infrastructure projects. How do the estimated costs seem to rise at such a rate? Is it more and more regulations, more and more delays or what?
    The Swiss have managed to build 50km of high speed line through a mountain for only 10 Billion.
    There was similar cost creep on the Chanel Tunnel and planned new Nuclear plants seem to be going the same way.

    Best regards


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  • @Morgan Williams: "The main reason for HS2 was to encourage economic growth, this can't be achieved by the HS2 scheme"

    What evidence are you citing for this verse?; also, what capacity are you proposing without HS2 in the mid 2020s? .............. bearing in mind capacity in the WCML and ECML will be full by then.

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  • @Morgan Williams: The best way to spend money is to upgrade existing systems - Wait for the howls from commuters when the works mean diversions / closures which last months / years. Building new means the routes are suitable for high speed. Routes with lots of stations and stops will always be speed limited (ask Mr Branson), even when the work is completed. And doing all this piecemeal will take for even and with even more risk of cost overruns.

    Build new, build well, build quickly, and don't compromise on routing to suit local interests / votes. What about taking a leaf from the hyperloop project and contructing the whole thing on a platform above motorways? Who could object to that? Minimal environmental impact.

    Is this really the country that built Concorde, the Harrier, Mallard, TSR2, or have we just become a prisoner of special interest groups and anti's. Build it and they will come.

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  • Steve (the JFDI version).... The irony in your response is staggering... who actually 'came' for Concorde, Harrier and Mallard.

    As well, note that Harold Wilson, apart from trend-setting bankrupting UKplc by Labour Govs (& recently perfected by the Blair/Brown combo), cancelled TSR2 because the Americans somehow persuaded him to abandon it. .....

    Also, mull on our Trade Union dictatorships over the years..... Now still arguably controlling our Rail network and possibly preventing cost effective utilisation and rationalisation.

    By the time HS2 is complete, even the 'middle-England' bit now proposed will be immediately obsolete.

    Let's do it properly for once and invite North to South HS transport ideas and implement something not just radical, but really useful and beneficial to all, not just a select few.

    So Steve. You started by being highly critical of those who gainsayed the benefits of HS2 and in your last piece above propose an entirely new concept transcending HS2.

    Which side are you on?

    and I agree....Over (or under?) Motorways is a start to a new way of thinking on this one......

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  • Investing in a high speed network is not a leap in to the unknown, we will already be the last major country in Europe to get one. In my experience these networks are widely valued, used and garner a huge national pride.
    This is a small island with a big population and our roads and existing rail corridors are already way over capacity. We would be deluded to think we can resolve that at any lower cost, if at all. If you have travelled inter-city recently, you will know how massively over-subscribed it is.
    We need the HS rail network now, unless we want to resign ourselves to being an economic backwater. Infrastructure investment has been key to our past success and will be for the future. Growth in city populations, here & worldwide, is already a fact, we need to prepare now how to support them. Like our forebears (and our international competition), we need to take the long term view. We must stop wringing our hands and telling ourselves we can't do it. We will be judged by future generations and I hope they can look back and say we had foresight.

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