HS2: the wrong project, from the wrong place, to the wrong places

I don’t claim to know anything about transport, though in a personal blog ignorance should never be considered an insuperable obstacle to inspired pontification.  I do however know a bit about regeneration, a bit more about economic development, and more about government planning failures than is healthy.

Let me offer three simple criteria.  First, all projects, minor as well as major,  have to add value.  If they duplicate facilities which are already there, any improvements they offer are marginal (in the economic sense) – not necessarily something to be dismissed, but something that needs to be compared with improvements in current provision to see whether the gain is actually worthwhile.  The London to Birmingham route already has some of the best services available in the UK, on both road and rail.  Most of our major transport links are aimed at London.  By contrast, there are large areas of the UK with poor communications and transport links.  That’s being identified with the “North”, though apparently for this purpose Birmingham (which arguably has  the best connections after London) is being treated as if it was in the “North”.

Second, projects have to serve  the largest number of people possible – that always has a massive impact on the cost-benefit analysis.  Part of that, the greatest gain,  relates to the marginal benefit.  The way to maximise the marginal benefit is to put any route into places which don’t at present have one – creating a new infrastructure, rather than developing an old one.  One of the standard objections from conservationists to new projects is that they create new demands, new traffic, and new lines of communication.  That’s exactly what we should want to happen.  As things stand,  we have been developing an infrastructure around airports – road access, car parks, transport routes, hospitality, business parks and so forth.  That is the sort of development that a high-speed rail link ought to be encouraging.

The other part, serving the largest number of people possible, implies finding a route that   will be accessible to the widest possible population.  For a high-speed rail network, that implies covering the longest distance possible, but it also applies a route that will be within a reasonably accessible distance – say 30 miles, or 90 minutes – of the largest number of people possible.  Putting these two issues together, if there is only going to be one high-speed line, that would imply a route well to the west of London.   I don’t have the information base to work out just what that would imply, but a route down the spine of the country would probably run from somewhere north of Southampton to somewhere north of Falkirk, with stops at something like 50-60 mile intervals.

Third,  avoid urban land.  That is partly because of the cost,  always a major part of any assessment of value.  Land is expensive, and land in cities costs more.  So a cost-effective high-speed route would not be running to and from the centre of cities, but  past them, using the less expensive green field sites wherever possible.  The other reason, possibly more powerful still, is that it this approach allows scope for development.  Putting in feeder routes is the next stage, for local action, but the advantage of avoiding city centes is that there is room for that kind of development.

The core problem with the HS2 project is not that its costs are increasing: that was built into the plan.  It’s the wrong development,  going the wrong way.


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