Business leaders call on government to abandon HS2 “folly”


A new survey of UK business leaders represents another knife in the back for HS2. 

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.