Christian Wolmar has written a short history of High Speed Rail 2 for the London Review of Books. “What is the point of HS2?”, he asks. The transport commentator is an opponent of the project, which passed through another legislative tunnel on Monday evening. Nevertheless, his essay is a sober account of why HS2 is going ahead, despite the protean arguments of its supporters. For anyone beguiled by the voodoo economics of both sides of the debate, it is an essential read.
Wolmar contests that the shifting claims made for HS2 reflect its haphazard origins. None of the major rail reviews of the Labour government recommended a north-south line, Wolmar says. He argues that the creation in 2009 of High Speed Two, the government-sponsored company in charge of the project, was partly a political response to Conservative support for the idea and partly a response to environmental concerns about expanding Heathrow. Under the stewardship of Andrew Adonis, Labour’s fervent reformer, it soon became a central part of its economic response to the crisis. The coalition government adopted it as an emblem of the Conservative party’s modernisation and, incongruously, a way of both “rebalancing” the geography of the economy and winning a “global race”. Read more
In his speech to the CBI conference, David Cameron will today say that critics of High Speed Rail 2 are resigned to leaving Britain in “the slow lane” and that they “are betraying everyone north of Watford”. Leaving to one side the lack of lanes on railways, the prime minister is trying to make two arguments about the controversial scheme. The first is that this is the type of bold projects that bold countries embark upon. The second is that the new fast railway line would help bridge (sorry) the “North-South divide”. Read more
There is no obvious middle ground between building all of HS2 and not building all of HS2. The estimated benefits are higher over time and the further it goes towards Manchester and Leeds. And if the money is not spent on HS2 a large share of it will still have to go on increasing capacity. So far at least the opposition has accepted the argument that HS2 is the best way to do that. Read more
Reading the latest government-sponsored report on the benefits of the High Speed 2 railway brought to mind the louche, smoky genius of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The engineer was much more than a salesman but he had a talent for persuading sceptics of the necessity of his dreams. This month, the coalition government is busy reasserting the case for the HS2 project, which has come in for criticism for its rising costs and dodgy evidence base. George Osborne and Nick Clegg have spoken in favour. But HS2 could do with a Brunel. Read more
In 1987, Michael Heseltine observed that “the Treasury never sleeps”. He might have added that it therefore never dreams. Read more