Responding to Alex Massie on HS2

March 04, 2011 11:58 AM

Alex Massie responds to my post on the Spectator Coffee House, which attacked the incredible assumptions underlying the business case for the HS2 project expected to cost well over £1,000 a family.  Well, he doesn't respond directly.  He just ditches the debate over the business case altogether in favour of arguing a more rhetorical case for the new line.  Fair enough, but unfortunately many of his assertions don't really fit the facts.

His first argument is the most unfair, as he sets up a complete straw man:

"But when and why did we decide that we no longer need to spend money on infrastructure?"

What do you mean "we", Massie?

I'm not aware of anyone arguing we don't need to invest in infrastructure.  The TaxPayers' Alliance manifesto, published before the last election to set benchmarks and priorities for our campaign over the current Parliament, argued we should "refocus transport spending on high use commuter rail and roads".  Our report on how to save £50 billion explicitly avoided further cuts in spending on infrastructure investment from the last Government’s plans.  The question isn't whether we invest in infrastructure, but which projects offer the best value.

He next moves on to my charge that the improvement won't be sufficient on the London to Birmingham line to justify the over £17 billion cost:

"I can't help but wonder what "already fast and frequent service" he has in mind. The railways are over-burdened and over-stretched as it is."

That is a non sequitur: obviously a service can be fast and frequent but also short of capacity.  When that is the case, wouldn't it make sense to find an affordable way of delivering the extra capacity we need?  There are more affordable ways of doing that, with more and longer trains.  See some of our earlier blogs on this issue for a more detailed explanation of why the alternatives offer better value.

He also shifts from talking about the London to Birmingham service to the railways overall, which brings in other services like particularly overcrowded commuter trains.

Then he moves on to the fact that there are journeys in Britain sufficient in distance for high speed rail to produce dramatic improvements in journey time, like London to Edinburgh.  Of course there are, but in those cases the question is whether or not there is sufficient demand for that significant improvement to be worth the money.  There isn't even a business case for that line for us to criticise yet, but analysts I've spoken to suggest not.

He concludes his article with a series of assertions about how "shrinking" Britain is increasingly important.  It all reads very well but there is little explanation of why, or any consideration of whether that is best achieved by the Government's HS2 proposals.

Alex Massie is a veteran of university debating - I am too, and he has the traditional debater's vice of loathing any consideration of cost.  But we have a series of competing claims on limited resources.  £1,000 per family is a huge amount of money and will limit the amount we can put into alternative infrastructure projects, our ability to address other pressing priorities or both.  The way we test whether or not high speed rail should be a priority is the kind of quantitative analysis that I looked at in the post he is criticising.

You need to test whether or not the case for spending our money on this particular project, rather than the Government - or ideally families themselves - spending it on something else, stands up to scrutiny.  When commentators - from George Monbiot to Simon Heffer through Simon Jenkins and Christian Wolmar - have looked at the business case, they have found for a range of reasons that it looks very shaky.  If Alex Massie wants to engage with this debate seriously, he needs to do the same.  And not argue the case for infrastructure investment but for HS2 itself as a real priority for our money.

Chris Stokes, author of a TPA research note on high speed rail and a senior rail executive, adds some further thoughts in response to Alex’s blog:

“Alex Massie makes a strong defence in the Spectator of the government's proposals for high speed rail.

First, he wonders what "fast and frequent services" we already have. Taking Manchester - London as an example, there is a train every twenty minutes taking just over two hours. Is the economy of Manchester going to be transformed if this journey time is cut by half? And the great majority of these trains have lots of empty seats, even before the trains used are lengthened to increase standard class seating by 50 per cent over the next two years.

Then he compares us with France, Spain, Belgium and Holland. The Dutch have recently opened a high speed line which is already in big trouble - revenues are well below forecasts. This isn't surprising, as academic research shows that 80 per cent of high speed rail forecasts are overcooked, typically by 50 per cent. The Spaniards are investing enormous sums building a national high speed network. This gets people out of planes onto trains which has an environmental value but a very high price tag. But is it transformational for the Spanish economy? Is it creating jobs? The evidence suggests this is, to say the least, doubtful.

High speed rail can deliver improvements for some lucky communities. The commuter services on Britain's existing high speed line, from St.Pancras to the channel tunnel, have stimulated significant development at Ashford. But other towns in East Kent, such as Margate and Ramsgate, remain deeply depressed. HS2 will have a similar result; the area immediately round its Manchester terminal would do very well, but will anyone invest in Liverpool, which isn't directly served? High speed rail doesn’t deliver new jobs, but transfers them from other places.

Properly targeted infrastructure investment can produce real benefits. The regional rail network in the North of England, which is very poor in a lot of areas, could be transformed at a fraction of the cost of HS2.  That would provide dramatically improved links for cities and towns across the region and improve both inter-urban and commuting journeys. And all the economic benefits would be retained within the region, not leaking to London and the South East as they will with HS2. The Scots are showing how this can be done; they have recently opened a fourth route between Edinburgh and Glasgow, and are electrifying and accelerating the principal route, which will then have a ten minute frequency shuttle."

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