Philip Hammond's non-response to HS2 letter

March 10, 2011 12:22 PM

This morning a number of respected economic commentators and business leaders have attacked the Government's plans for a new high speed rail line (HS2).

I have written for ConservativeHome about the increasingly broad coalition who disagree with the plans.  Hopefully the Government will listen and we can avoid spending £1,000 per family on an incredibly expensive train set.  The business case is based on dubious assumptions and it could be a huge white elephant.

Le train de babar by AlbinedeFlore

Unfortunately the response from Philip Hammond so far has been to ignore the critics' arguments and keep trying to pretend this is about local objections versus the national interest, when the real issue is that HS2 just isn't in the national interest.  Here are a few extracts of his response, from the Press Association:

"I understand that this is a controversial project, particularly for many of those who live along the line of the route, but the Government's job is to balance local objections against the national interest."

It is very legitimate that some people are upset about the disruption to their homes and communities from the line.  That isn't the objection being raised today though.  Our letter shows that a range of prominent economic commentators and business leaders just don't think this is in the national interest.  The Department for Transport's desperate attempts to portray those who doubt HS2's merits as NIMBYs are increasingly implausible.

"We believe that the best way to create jobs and growth is to invest in Britain's future."

Absolutely, but which investment?  Over £17 billion for the first leg and well over £30 billion overall is a huge amount of money and we will have to neglect a lot of other valuable investments if it goes ahead.  You can't spend that kind of money twice.

"This is a big project, but the cost will be spread over 15 years and we will generate more than £2 of direct benefits for every £1 of cost - as well as major strategic benefits to the wider economy."

Philip Hammond is doing two things here.  First he is trying to pretend that the fact HS2 will take years and years to deliver is a good thing.  It actually means that we aren't going to get extra capacity, and reduced overcrowding, sooner as we could with other options.  The cost is still there and still enormous.

He then cites the claim in the business case that HS2 will deliver £2 in benefits for every £1 in cost, which isn't credible.  While there has been a new consultation document since, the broad outline of the flaws in the business case are set out in a research note by Chris Stokes - a senior rail executive.  It relies upon overly optimistic demand projections, compares HS2 to a world of no rail improvements which is unrealistic, and makes the ludicrous assumption that people do nothing of value on the train.  Correct those flaws and the business case, and that 2:1 ratio collapses.  Even if you don't though, 2:1 isn't as good as it sounds.  Road projects are expected to meet a far higher bar.

"That is why so many British businesses have already given our high speed rail (HSR) plans their overwhelming backing."

Some businesses have backed the plan.  But have they concluded the business case is strong or are they trying to curry favour with the Government?  It is particularly telling that the Conservatives' competitiveness guru has come out against HS2.  The Government should be listening.

"Countries across Europe and Asia are already pressing ahead with ambitious plans for HSR. Britain cannot afford to be left behind."

Some are losing money and having to bail their high speed lines out.  Others have very different distributions of their population, so high speed rail makes more sense.

"As any regular rail passenger will tell you, our railways are increasingly crowded, and more and more people are having to stand. We need to invest in new lines and new trains."

Trains are crowded, that is a genuine issue.  And that's why we should look at more affordable plans for incremental improvements in the existing railways that do more to reduce overcrowding and can deliver more quickly.

"Sticking our heads in the sand, as these people seem to wish, is simply not an option."

This is the most absurd part.  How on Earth are people writing a letter to oppose a major project sticking their heads in the sand?  Sticking your head in the sand means ignoring what is going on, and might better describe Philip Hammond's broken record appeal to discredited claims about the business case of HS2.

Philip Hammond has been outdone by Barry Sheerman though, who is being even more ridiculous.  In the Commons he attacked critics of high speed rail and said they were climate change deniers.  Given that HS2 won't cut greenhouse gas emissions, and is opposed by the Green Party and Friends of the Earth, he probably shouldn't play the environmentalist card.

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