In defence of folly
On 15 May 2015 Financial Times columnist Jeremy Paxman described the HS2 project as “a grotesque waste of taxpayers’ money” (paywall). HS2 Ltd’s chairman David Higgins defended the project in a response published on the gov.uk website.
Jeremy Paxman, in his familiar style, dismisses HS2 as a folly. Perhaps he would like to consider a few facts. Rail travel in this country has doubled in the past twenty years and is forecast to keep growing at five percent minimum per year. The result is a rail network that is so full that incremental improvements, whilst very welcome, will not deliver the step change in capacity that is needed. He might also want to consider why productivity in countries such as France, Germany and the Netherlands, which have invested in high speed rail, is higher than in this country. HS2 will help relieve the housing, commercial property and transport pressure on London whilst improving connectivity, and therefore productivity, in the Midlands and the North. That is why HSBC is moving its UK headquarters to Birmingham by 2018 and why, elected, local authority leaders across the Midlands and the North, as well as an overwhelming majority of MPs support the scheme. Passengers who queue on a daily basis at Paddington and London Bridge, or those who have to stand on the West Coast Mainline are paying the price of dithering and delay by previous generations. Imagine what it will be like in twenty years’ time if we fail once again to seize the chance for change.
Sir David Higgins
Chair, HS2 Ltd
While it is more or less true to say that GB passenger journeys have doubled to 1,500 million since 1994, high speed rail has not been a facilitator of that uplift. HS1 carried only 12 million domestic and 9.9 million international passengers in 2012. So national rail growth arose — and was accommodated on — existing lines, with no increase in passengers in “excess of capacity”.
Whether or not long distance rail travel to Manchester, Sheffield, and Leeds “is forecast to keep growing at five percent minimum”, is not a reason to spend £50+ billion on high speed rail. The volume of such traffic is very small, and would remain small, even with five percent year-on-year growth.
According to the McNulty report, annual rail journeys could increase by another ~100% in the period to 2030. But the HS2 project is not relevant to accommodating such growth.