The Transport Select Committee report on proposals for a new high speed rail line this morning is supportive of the case for the new line on balance but, as Benedict Brogan wrote this morning "its backing is so lukewarm it is almost as bad as a condemnation."
There are a whole series of issues that the Committee argues need to be dealt with before a decision is made, and a whole lot of problems they haven't dealt with properly that also need to be addressed. The final picture is clear: a project of this scale can't go ahead without a proper review that answers these questions, and offers a complete idea of the costs and benefits so taxpayers can decide if the scheme offers proper value.
There would be a number of areas a review would need to address. The Committee call for better analysis of "the policy context, the assessment of alternatives, the financial and economic case, the environmental impacts, connections to Heathrow and the justification for the particular route being proposed."
The new line needs to be properly assessed against realistic alternatives like the plan set out by Chris Stokes for the local authority group 51M. The Committee accept that would meet forecast demand. They call for the economic case is updated on the basis of reduced crowding and a lower value for time savings. That update also needs to apply to alternative proposals.
What they don't address seriously is all the ways that this project might lead to fresh demands for taxpayers' money. They note that the London Underground won't be able to cope with so many more passengers being routed into London Euston, but don't properly reflect on the huge amounts that could add to the cost. They argue that new services on the current network could compensate for the reduction in services that places like Coventry and Stoke will face under the existing plans. But don't ask what the bill will be to subsidise those trains (it will take a substantial subsidy to maintain a regular service when most passengers to Birmingham and beyond travel on the new high speed line) and how that can be reconciled with the existing budget including billions in cuts to existing services.
We looked at the potential additional costs in a research note. It is only possible to get a rough estimate without the resources available to the Government investigating this sort of decision. But we produced a research note with reasonable estimates. Meeting Ministers' promises that towns and cities currently set to lose out won't, and stopping rises in fares expected under current plans will increase the cost to taxpayers. So will burying parts of the line to address environmental concerns, and building new capacity to cope with the huge number of additional journeys being routed into Euston. Rail expert Chris Stokes estimates that would increase the cost to taxpayers alone from £17.1 billion to £45.5 billion.
And that's leaving aside the potential problems with the demand forecast. The Committee cite how "some major transport schemes have proved to have had greater economic impacts than their pre-implementation appraisals predicted" but not how passenger forecasts are overestimated for nine out of ten rail projects. In most cases these lines don't live up to their billing.
If Parliament doesn't insist that Ministers either come clean about the true cost of HS2, or the many people who may get a worse service, MPs will have completely let down taxpayers. We can't let this huge project go ahead without proper scrutiny.
Politicians should be extremely careful about taxing the poor to pay for a rich man's train.