Alex Massie

Boris’s rail betrayal is no surprise

Boris's rail betrayal is no surprise
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A promise made is merely a promise waiting to be broken. If events complicate life for all governments it is nevertheless apparent some governments are more likely to abandon their promises than others. And by now no-one should be surprised that a government led by Boris Johnson finds it easier to jettison its pledges than to honour them. It is the nature of the creature.

Today it happens to be High Speed Rail, but yesterday it was something else and tomorrow it will be another thing altogether. The Prime Minister’s inconstancy is his constancy. Even so, the watering down of previous plans to – at long last – invest seriously in transport connections across much of the north of England is a shameless piece of promise-smashing and remains so even if judged by the Prime Minister’s lengthy form on such matters. 

Time and time again, Johnson and his ministers have promised that HS2 would run north; time and time again they have promised that so-called Northern Powerhouse Rail would be made reality. This morning’s announcement of reduced investment and reduced delivery of these plans may be no surprise and it may not even cost the government much in political terms but it sends a powerful signal nonetheless: forget the north.

Granted, HS2 has run into difficulties and some of these have been the fault of its proponents. Far too much attention has been focused upon cutting journey times to and from London and far too little on the way in which HSR expands capacity for towns and small cities at which HSR does not itself call. Equally, costs have increased so rapidly that one argument against HS2 appears to be that the United Kingdom is – almost uniquely – incapable of building large scale infrastructure projects and, this being so, it is wiser not to attempt them in the first place.

The sunk costs argument is always one to be taken seriously. Throwing good money after questionable cash is not necessarily prudent. Cutting and running can be the more sensible option. But the argument over HS2 is not really one about cost. Sure, £100bn seems a lot of money – it is a lot of money! – but it is also, if viewed from a different perspective, something close to a bargain. For the cost of major infrastructure projects of this sort should really be thought of on something like a 40 year timescale. Put it like that and HS2 and all its HS children begin to seem almost a bargain. (Note too how many Tories who oppose HS2 on grounds of cost will back the renewal of Trident, another £100bn project, noting that if measured over a 40 or 50 year period it’s really not nearly as expensive as the headline figure promises.)

Far from being overly ambitious the chief weakness of Britain’s plans for high-speed rail is that they have not been ambitious enough. The answer to the question 'Which major infrastructure projects should be built?' is, on balance, 'All of them'. My own – decidedly amateur – view is that a Manchester-Leeds-Sheffield HSR triangle with further lines to Liverpool, York, and Hull would be as useful as better connections to London, welcome though those fast lines to the imperial capital might be. But why stop there? There is a political case, as well as a transport one, for heading north and not just to Newcastle either. What price the 'Union Line' to Glasgow and Edinburgh? Ah well, it was a nice idea.

Some Tory opposition to HSR appears predicated upon the quaint notion that, in the future, people will no longer need or want to travel. Rail, they say, is on its way out, a 20th century project obsolete in the 21st century. If so, it seems worth observing this is not a view shared by other countries. They may of course all be mistaken and Britain may, uniquely, be correct in thinking that we shall in the future all wish to stay at home, freed from the need or even desire to move about the country. It must also be possible, however, that this is not the case and that, heavens, new technology will simultaneously eliminate distance in certain respects while also placing a valuable premium on face-to-face interactions.

And, as ever, this is a truth acknowledged as and when the question is whether to build in London or not. This is not, it must be insisted, a question of a false competition between London and Not London. The capital’s infrastructure needs are clear and pressing and persuasive. Rather it is a matter of mindset. 

London’s needs are recognised because the people making the decisions live and work in London. They know those waters and what they need and because they know this from their own experience it becomes vastly easier to give projects the green light. In the provinces, where the economic numbers are harder to run and easy to think less persuasive, it is a different matter and a different calculation. If the bias is unthinking and unconscious it remains palpable even if it is also, on another level, understandable.

Meanwhile, it also seems worth observing that if opposition to HSR (and NPR) is not confined to those who live and work in London it enjoys the overwhelming support of civic leaders in the north of England. It must be thought possible even northerners may from time to time have some appreciation of their own best interests.

Political expediency rules, however, and the calculation is that Tory voters, even in the north, are not much concerned with these projects. That may be correct but it doesn’t alter the reality of broken promises or the sending of a signal that, for all its bluster and bombast, the Prime Minister’s 'levelling-up' agenda is all style and precious little substance. I know, who could have foreseen that?