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Off Track – Is it the end of the line for High Speed 2?

Despite being an avid supporter and advocate for the railways, I have always been sceptical of HS2. The scheme to build a high speed line from London to Birmingham and then in a Y shape to Leeds and Manchester has always seemed to me to be rooted more in the desire to have a grand project rather than any well-researched transport need.

The benefits in terms of jobs created have always seemed to be too nebulous, the costs (£32bn plus rolling stock) too high and the effect on the environment too damaging (not just in the Chilterns, but further north, too, as well as in London). I have pointed out all of this many times previously (see here for example) and so I was delighted that all my past arguments have been backed by the National Audit Office.

Given that normally the NAO is wary of strong wording, its report into the HS2 scheme could not be expressed more unequivocally. It is deeply sceptical of all the benefits, supposed to include more jobs, better productivity and a boost to the regions. The job creation figure – the figure being quoted is 100,000 – seems to have been plucked out of the air; the business case is feeble since it is well below the rule of thumb normally required by the Department – that there should be a 2 – 1 benefit cost ratio; and the methodology used is dubious, since it assumes that people’s time on trains is wasted (whereas many working people use the time productively thanks to WiFi and 3G) and there is no evidence that the scheme would help the regions. Indeed, quite the opposite – Britain may well become even more Londoncentric because it will be easier to reach London from the provinces, obviating the need, for example, for regional offices.

Will this stop the politicians given the consensus across all three major parties? Not in the short run, but the case for the line is so weak that eventually a new government may well decide it is not worth the hassle, especially as the post 2015 administration will inherit a bill still going through Parliament. The alternative of incremental, carefully planned investment to the railway would benefit more people, since many other lines could be improved, and would cost far less.

*Christian Wolmar is the author of Fire & Steam: the history of Britain’s railways (2009). He is seeking the Labour nomination for the 2016 London mayoral election