Ross Clark

Another £43bn for HS2? How about some austerity instead

Another £43bn for HS2? How about some austerity instead
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There is a big glaring problem for anyone trying to accuse the government of ‘austerity’ – a charge that is continuously laid by virtually all opposition parties. Just where does that charge fit in with HS2? True, the nation’s roads are full of potholes, the bins in some places are being emptied only once every three weeks and the NHS is trying to wriggle out of offering hernia operations – something it seemed to manage perfectly well to perform in 1948. But still it is a little hard to square the charge of austerity with a government planning to spend £56 billion of public money on a single railway line, to be built at a cost, per mile, of more than four times what the French paid for their high speed line from Paris to Strasbourg.

And it won’t be just the £56 billion either. Today, Sir John Armitt, Chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission, argues for an extra £43 billion to ensure that HS2 plugs into efficient transport networks at either end. He has a point: at present the line is proposed to pass the western outskirts of Nottingham, with some talk of a possible tram to the City Centre. It is planned to run directly under the runway of East Midlands Airport – but without a station. Services will run into a new station in Birmingham several hundred yards from New Street, where all connecting services will arrive.

The other way to look at it, though, is to say that Armitt’s proposals show up many of HS2’s fatal flaws. But don’t be surprised if the government nods it through. In fact, as the extra £43 billion will only bring the overall cost to £99 billion, why not spend an extra billion on some gold-plated buffers at Euston just to bring it up to a nice round £100 billion. And of course, as we know from previous experience , the budget will have doubled by the time the line opens.

HS2 ought to have been the first victim of ‘austerity’. Instead it seems to have escaped altogether. Yet run a financial comb over the absurdly overblown HS2 and there are huge savings which could be made – and provide extra Inter City rail capacity to the North. Firstly, drop the line speed. The current proposal of 225 mph would give Britain the fastest operational rail line in Europe. Why, when most of our cities are already within two hours’ journey time of each other? A top speed of 140 mph would be plenty. Given that the government argues that HS2 is about capacity not speed it is hard to fathom what would be the objection to this. At 140 mph, it would not be necessary to construct a new track bed for much of the way -- instead HS2 could use the disused Grand Central line, the last of the main lines to be built at the turn of last century. The majority is still there, between Aylesbury and Nottingham.

Why the need to rebuild Euston at vast expense? There, the plans undermine the argument that HS2 is all about boosting the economy of the North – a lot of it seems to be about regenerating the northern fringes of Bloomsbury. Were Crossrail 2 to be diverted to Euston rather than to Kings Cross (which already connects to Thameslink services through the centre of London), then Euston could be freed of many suburban trains. It wouldn’t need to be expanded or rebuilt.

The voting public threw its support behind David Cameron’s and George Osborne’s promise in 2010 to rebalance the government’s books. Since then, some public spending belts have been loosened and taken off altogether. It is time HS2 was subjected to some cost cutting for a change.