It’s been the usual high-speed hype for HS2. First, we had a £1.3bn boost for Birmingham, followed days later by the prospect of Scotland receiving its own £3bn economic bonanza.
Speaking to business leaders in Glasgow, the Secretary of State for Transport explained how investment in the rail sector over the next five years will improve links between Scotland and England. Mr McLoughlin pointed out, though, that the biggest change, stimulating the largest amount of economic activity, will be the start of HS2 in three years – creating the ‘first north-south railway for a generation’. “By cutting the journey times from Edinburgh and Glasgow to cities in England, HS2 will boost the Scottish economy by around £3bn.”
One can only hope that the Public Accounts Committee or the Treasury Select Committee will be able, at some point, to step in with a reality check as the sums flowing from HS2 grow bigger and bigger.
The 2013 government-funded KPMG report started the ball rolling with impressive economic benefits being claimed for the project. The problem is the KPMG claims have been hugely controversial and are hard to justify in the context of the impact of a single high-speed line. Hardly surprising HS3 became the latest rabbit out of the hat as supporters of the project came to the conclusion that when it comes to high-speed rail, one vision just isn’t enough.
The associated elements to realise the claimed benefits of HS2 represent an integral part of the business case yet there appears to be no effort to ever cost these. Instead, the high-speed train hurtles down the line regardless.
If this was not worrying enough, a further likelihood is that a foreign investor, such as China, will be encouraged to bid for the operating franchise. If this was to be the case, it would be on the basis of future revenue resulting from predicted passenger numbers. The Department for Transport’s record in this regard is poor – passenger forecasts for HS1 were wildly optimistic. If history repeats itself the taxpayer, no doubt, will be expected to fund the shortfall for decades to come, guaranteeing a return on investment…£50bn may be just the start.