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The case against HS2

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Not to sound smug or anything, but I live in the western world’s capital of high-speed rail. From Paris, I zip by train to Amsterdam, Brussels, Marseille and other cities. I regularly power into London along Britain’s only high-speed track. Added to this, I’m a member of the tribe that’s instinctively drawn to the “Britain worst” narrative — that, whatever the topic, the UK ranks bottom of the developed world.

Yet watching the government overturn 14 years of planning to shrink its half-built high-speed line, HS2, into a London-Birmingham line only, excluding northern England, I thought: the UK can do without high-speed trains. England, the only British nation where these lines are planned, doesn’t need high-speed the way France, Spain or Italy do. Even many continental lines aren’t worth the money. Here, contrary to all my rail-loving prejudices, is the argument against most high-speed trains.

England’s surface area is about 50,000 square miles, a quarter the size of Spain or France. It’s pretty traversable at current speeds. London to Manchester is half the distance of Barcelona to Madrid. Some “normal” trains do the journey in two hours, six minutes. That knocks out one argument for high-speed trains: that they replace carbon-emitting flights. The Rome-Milan train does, but few people fly from London to Manchester.

And England’s dense habitation requires much buying up of homes and drilling of tunnels to facilitate HS2. That has helped triple the line’s price since 2009. By contrast, once your TGV is 15 minutes out of Paris, you’ll scarcely see a human being. No wonder, then, that in 2021 the Treasury rated the London-Birmingham line as “low value for money”. The comparison with China, which built more than 20,000 miles of high-speed track while the UK wasn’t building HS2, falls even flatter. China has 25 times more potential passengers than England (and it still managed to over-build).

The UK has other pressing investment needs. “We consistently invest too little,” notes Torsten Bell, head of the Resolution Foundation think-tank. “The average OECD advanced economy has invested 50 per cent more (relative to GDP) than the UK since the turn of the century.” Even with Britain’s tax burden approaching a postwar high, it’s still well below the western European average.

Spending scarce billions on finishing HS2 would add a 21st-century bolt-on to a 19th-century rail system. Britain could instead use the money to upgrade existing trains, so that they run reliably, ending such absurdities as a rail company paying a fleet of taxis to ferry stranded passengers four hours from Preston to Scottish towns the other night. Rather than cutting journey time, Britain could cut its punitive train fares — probably a bigger disincentive to travel for most people. It could improve WiFi on trains so that journey time becomes working time. And to cut carbon emissions, try completing electrification of the rails.

But even on the continent, many fast trains are expensive wastes of effort. When the European Court of Auditors analysed high-speed rail in six EU countries in 2018, it found ubiquitous cost overruns, delays and lines with too few passengers. (Little Guadalajara in Spain didn’t need a high-speed station.) Most European lines weren’t high-speed in practice: average real speeds were just 45 per cent of the supposed maximums.

Sometimes, the auditors concluded, a better solution would have been “upgrading existing conventional lines”, but this had seldom even been considered. “The decision to build high-speed lines is often based on political considerations,” not on cost-benefit analyses. I saw this one recent evening when my TGV from Geneva to Paris stopped in the French town of Bellegarde-sur-Valserine (population: about 12,000), where hardly anyone got on or off. Perhaps Bellegarde had a powerful politician. France could have spent the money providing unglamorous trains in rural rail deserts. But high-speed trains often escape scrutiny because they are national virility symbols that feel modern, green and pro-regional (while also rewarding contractors).

Boosters argue that these trains regenerate regions — a benefit supposedly undervalued by miserly finance ministries. However, the auditors found, “analysing changes over time (for example, in . . . the property market and the number of businesses attracted and jobs created), we saw no clear regeneration effects from 15 of the 18 stations on the audited high-speed lines.”

A popular cliché this week is that infrastructure is often contested before it’s built, then instantly becomes essential and beloved. Well, sometimes. The high-speed plane Concorde began commercial flights in 1976. It was canned in 2003. Some new infrastructure just isn’t that helpful.

Email Simon at simon.kuper@ft.com

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