John Downer: Scrapping HS2 wouldn’t help the North, it would cut a vital lifeline to the regional economies

Crucial investment in local rail infrastructure isn’t an alternative to the new line, it depends on it.

John Downer is a Director of High Speed Rail Industry Leaders (HSRIL), a group of companies and organisations which is committed to supporting the successful delivery of a world-class high speed rail network in Britain.

Every few months – and more often recently– comes the call to scrap HS2 and spend the money on something else.

And we’ve had it again this week on these very pages, reiterating previous suggestions that the Midlands and the North would be better served by investment in regional transport links.

But, however tempting it might be to spend the budget of a few billions per year on something else, there is little more the Government could do to jeopardise the economic prospects of cities like Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, and Leeds than scrap a project which is so fundamental to their future economic development.

For the most important thing to understand about HS2 is that it is not just a railway. It is an economic regeneration project (and the most important economic regeneration project in Britain for decades) which is catalysing a whole host of other investments in its wake.

What holds Britain back today is not the connections from big cities to London, but poor connections between the other big cities. Services between cities like Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, and Newcastle are slow, unreliable, and overcrowded – and HS2 is absolutely integral to tackling this.

Remember your visit to Birmingham for the Party Conference in October? The cranes and building works were everywhere. Just outside the conference centre you saw the new headquarters of HSBC. Around the corner PwC is building their Midlands base, their biggest single investment outside London.

In Leeds, you have major new investment from Burberry and a whole South Bank regeneration for which HS2 is intrinsic. There are similar stories in Manchester and Liverpool too. And then ask the city leaders, from all political parties, how important HS2 is to triggering that investment, and unanimously they will tell you it is vital. Indeed, the project has no greater champion than Andy Street, Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands.

HS2 is about giving our great cities of the Midlands and the North the springboard to be the economic powerhouses of the future. Put harshly, without HS2, Britain has no strategy to grow our regional economies and no industrial strategy worthy of the name.

For HS2 trains won’t just reach those cities where the new line is being built. They will link into the rest of the network too, meaning that the services will reach 8 of the 10 biggest cities in Britain, reaching places like Newcastle, Glasgow and Edinburgh that are far from the construction of the line itself.

That’s not to say the other transport investment people call for isn’t needed too. It is. And the Government is to be supported in the priority they are attaching to the Northern Powerhouse Rail project to improve east/west links across the north. But far from being an alternative to local transport investment, HS2 is a pre-requisite for it to be successful.

To take one specific example, the West Coast Mainline is presently jam-packed. Passenger numbers on the route have more than doubled since it was last upgraded just 15 years ago, and there is simply no space to add new trains whether for commuters and inter-city travellers or for more freight off the motorways and onto rail. Building HS2 will move the inter-city traffic onto the new line, freeing up capacity for vital local, regional, and commuter services, so passengers in places like Milton Keynes and Coventry will benefit from HS2 as it will improve their commutes into London and Birmingham respectively.

More widely still, the benefit of HS2 supply chain contracts are already being felt across the UK. Nus Ghani MP, the HS2 Minister, is hosting an event in Parliament next week to meet HS2 suppliers, and they come from far-and-wide, not just from the line of route.

Already more than 2000 companies have worked on HS2. There are archaeologists from Bristol, ecological experts from Cardiff, and earth-moving contractors from Buckinghamshire. There are already two suppliers in Northern Ireland, 25 in Scotland and 65 in the South West. HS2 is a truly national project with truly national benefits, and those benefits will only grow over the coming years.

For these businesses, the costs of cancelling HS2 right now would be enormous. Over 7,000 people are working on the project already, and that will become tens of thousands over the next couple of years, with 70 per cent of those jobs outside London. Cancelling it now would literally mean filling-in the freshly dug holes in Birmingham and Euston, and laying off all the apprentices working on site. Is that a serious proposition?

All things considered, HS2 is about joining Britain back together again, after a number of years when our divisions have been more prominent than our unity. It is essential for the UK, and even more vital still for the Midlands and the North which stand to gain the most.

The project is underway. The train has started its journey. Let’s makes sure it reaches its destination and that taxpayers wring every last ounce of benefit from it.

Let’s turn Railways Day into Scrap HS2 Day

“How would you feel if we spent the money on local transport links in the Midlands and the north?’’ Gove asked Conservative MPs last year.

January 1 is the day to claim that the New Year will show us who we really are.  We made that case yesterday in relation to Brexit.  Perhaps we should simply have waited for 24 hours.  For there’s a good case for arguing that January 2, each year, provides real evidence of the kind of country Britain is.  And that it does so far more convicingly than anything imagination can conjure up the day before.

The second day of each New Year is Railways Day, on which annual fare rises are announced – 3.1 per cent for this coming year, a further above-inflation increase.  In the absence of other political news – not an unusual feature of the late Christmas season – it dominates media coverage.  Commuters, unions, and campaigners pile in.  The Transport Secretary is despatched to the studios to have buckets of ordure emptied ritually over his head.

If that person is Chris Grayling, to whom journalists now reflexively apply the death-watch terms “beleaguered” and “embattled”, he is wise to have an announcement tucked up his sleeve.  It won’t save him from the scragging but it will divert some attention.  And the Transport Secretary is an experienced enough hand to have prepared exactly that.  So, lo, he has revealed today that a new railcard extending child fares to 16 and 17-year-olds will be available ahead of the new academic year in September.

But there is more to Railways Day than an annual outing for the Transport Secretary – or the coming fare rises for commuters.  Age, class, region, the way we live now and are governed: January 2 has something to say about all of them.

First, age.  Home ownership is the classic demonstration of the updated version of Disraeli’s two nations: the young and the old.  Rail is another.  The country divides into those who remember the old, fully-nationalised railways and the modern, part-nationalised ones.  (Never forget: Network Rail, which runs the track, is a state body.)  Older voters are prone to that affliction of the ageing, nostaglia.  But its consoling mists don’t always conceal the bleakness of the view back – to under-investment, strikes, delays and lower passenger numbers.  They remember the days of full nationalisation, and are less likely to vote for the man who advocates it, Jeremy Corbyn, whatever polls about the popularity of state ownership may tell you.  Younger voters have shorter memories and trend Left.

Second, class – or at least income.  Railway use is skewed towards richer voters.  The highest-earning 20 per cent of voters take around four times as many train journeys each year as those in the bottom 40 per cent, and twice as many as those in the middle.  Corbyn’s targeting of these offer yet more evidence of his paradoxical approach to the electorate, whereby pledges are pushed at plusher voters rather than needier ones.  His 2017 manifesto somehow promised to scrap tuition fees but not to lift the benefits cap.  As our columnist James Frayne never tires of pointing out, the Just-About-Managings – remember them? – tend to drive to work, not take the train.

Third, region.  Rail use is highest in the South-East.  Many of those who bring you the Today programme or Newsnight will have made their way to their BBC place of work by train, and good luck to them.  Daily Telegraph reading-commuters clutch their season tickets.  Senior Guardian editors will make their way to work by rail and tube.  Our own readership is concentrated in the greater south-east.  No wonder we all find ourselves writing about the railways.  If you want a sense of how commuters or voters further north feel about this bias to the capital, have a look at the Yorkshire Post, and its complaint about delays to the phrasing-out of “Northern’s fleet of antiquated Pacers – buses converted into makeshift trains in the 1980s”.

Which brings us back to the part-nationalised system, the role of Network Rail, this summer’s timetabling chaos, and the leaked “yours cynically” e-mail from the Transport Department about the loss of a northern service.

A variant to Railways Day this year has been the activity of the centre-right orientated think tanks, many of which are out and about today making the case for our part-private system.  The Centre for Policy Studies (which got in early), the Taxpayers Alliance, the Institute of Economic Affairs – all are making necessary points: that the change has brought more journeys, higher passenger satisfaction and progressive funding, in the sense that consumers rather than taxpayers must bear part of the bill.

They, we and others might also unite in a late New Year’s resolution: to make each annual Railways Day a No HS2 Day.  “How would you feel if we just dropped HS2 and spent the money on local transport links in the Midlands and the north?’’ the ever-alert Michael Gove asked Conservative MPs last year.  He will know that of the £6.4 billion given to – excluding loans from Network Rail – almost a third was consumed by the high-speed project.

Five years ago, the ConservativeHome Manifesto proposed junking the project and transferring resources to a Northern Infrastructure Fund.  That would help ease income and regional disparities – not to mention curb the inevitable overspending on the project, £20 billion and counting the last time we looked.

HS2 – Is it worth it

I have been ambivalent about HS2 and working in the rail industry was somewhat biased towards the idea of building a high-speed rail link. I am not always convinced with the arguments when people say we can spend funds better elsewhere as I find such arguments lack a follow through or a wider perspective (yet […]

I have been ambivalent about HS2 and working in the rail industry was somewhat biased towards the idea of building a high-speed rail link. I am not always convinced with the arguments when people say we can spend funds better elsewhere as I find such arguments lack a follow through or a wider perspective (yet I propose to do precisely that in this article). However, the astronomical costs of HS2 are making me question if there is a viable business plan anymore. The drive for its build now seems to be political rather than economic.

The Department for Transport (DfT) says there will be almost 15,000 seats an hour on trains between London and the cities of Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds, trebling the current capacity. The plan was HS2 would connect London to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, and the East Midlands.

The first phase timing was considered ambitious by the Public Accounts Committee which is due to be opened by the end of 2026 for high-speed travel between London and Birmingham. Subsequent phase to Manchester and Leeds could start being built in the middle of the next decade, with the line to be opened by 2032-33. The cost of phase one (London to Birmingham) has already increased from £16bn to £22bn (an increase of 38 percent) due to the amount of tunneling required and purchase of land. The total cost of HS2 at the moment is expected to be £52bn. Although an article in the Sunday Times quoted one of the people who work at DfT, who made the estimates, who now says that the full cost could be well over £100bn.

According to The DfT journey times will be substantially reduced thus making major cities in the Midlands, North West and Scotland more accessible. HS2 is also expected to reduce the overcrowding and transfer over 4 million journeys from road to rail. The cost of the tickets has not been declared, but DfT does not expect to charge a premium for this service. Ministers claim the London-West Midlands section alone will create around 40,000 jobs, and some MPs believe it could be a catalyst for economic growth and help rebalance the economy between the North and South (political talk – I fear).

Campaigners say that historic houses in Buckinghamshire and Warwickshire will be demolished. Spending £50bn plus is funding taken from other areas where it could be better spent.  The UK is heavily in debt, public finances are stretched, and this government has failed to prioritise the impact of HS2 spending against other opportunities. The Sunday Times report notes that the cost of HS2 “could fix the nation’s potholes, upgrade the existing West Coast Main Line, fix other rail bottlenecks, turn busy A-roads into dual carriageways, build a third runway at Heathrow, invest £2bn in cycle networks and provide superfast broadband across the country.”

The Party briefing noted:

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has admitted that the second phase of HS2, from Birmingham to Leeds, may never be built. This is another line chalked up on Grayling’s CV of failure.

If HS2 turns out to be just a way of making Birmingham a suburb of London because it can be reached in 30 minutes, it will have fundamentally distorted the purpose of the project.

This Conservative Government are dragging prosperity from the north rather than increasing it, and the Liberal Democrats demand better.

If that is the case is it worth spending £22bn to reduce the travel time to Birmingham by 30 minutes. Surely, we can spend the funds on other priority services that have been hit so severely during this austerity period.

* Tahir Maher is the Wednesday editor and a member of the LDV editorial team

4 November 2018 – today’s press releases

Naturally, Brexit again dominates the news, but there is at least comment on the increasing problems with HS2… Best deal for UK is what we already have Responding to reports in today’s Sunday Times that Theresa May has negotiated a deal with the EU that would see the UK remain in the Customs Union, Liberal […]

Naturally, Brexit again dominates the news, but there is at least comment on the increasing problems with HS2…

Best deal for UK is what we already have

Responding to reports in today’s Sunday Times that Theresa May has negotiated a deal with the EU that would see the UK remain in the Customs Union, Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesperson Tom Brake said:

The deal the PM seems to have secured will leave us rule takers not rule makers.

It is time she conceded that the best deal we will get is the one we already have: in the customs union, in the single market and in the EU.

The PM must accept the growing calls around the country to put this to a People’s Vote and provide an option to remain on the ballot paper.

HS2 another line chalked on Grayling’s CV of failure

Responding to today’s Telegraph story carrying Transport Secretary Chris Grayling’s admission that the second phase (Birmingham to Leeds) of HS2 may never be built, Liberal Democrat Transport spokesperson Baroness Randerson said:

This is another line chalked up on Grayling’s CV of failure.

If HS2 turns out to be just a way of making Birmingham a suburb of London because it can be reached in 30 minutes, it will have fundamentally distorted the purpose of the project.

This Conservative Government are dragging prosperity from the north rather than increasing it and the Liberal Democrats demand better.

Banks represents culture of dodgy deals amongst Brexit campaigners

Responding to Aaron Banks’ comments about financial contributions to Leave.EU, Liberal Democrat Brexit Spokesperson Tom Brake said:

Aaron Banks’ performance on Marr this morning was nothing short of remarkable. His evasive approach to questions highlights the culture of dodgy deals in the Brexiters’ campaign. The campaign to leave the EU was jam packed full of lies, deceit and allegations of much worse.

Even Banks has admitted that Brexit was a mistake, stating that the shambles we are in now shows we would be better off staying in the EU.

People should not have to accept this mess. The Conservatives must give the people the final say on Brexit and a chance to remain in the EU.