Some call the plan for a high-speed rail link a vanity project, others see it as vital for the economy. But will it ever reach Scotland, asks Kristy Dorsey
DAVID Begg understands the concerns that have ignited a furore in the Home Counties, but the man who built his career on sustainable travel isn't about to give free run to local campaigners set on derailing Britain's next major high-speed train network.
Villagers along the proposed route from Buckinghamshire to Staffordshire have waged a steady and at times bitter assault against the construction of the new line, which one think-tank has condemned as an over-priced government "vanity project". Earlier this month, protesters turned out in their hundreds in a march to Prime Minister David Cameron's country residence, where they unfurled a massive white elephant on a hill overlooking Chequers.
Supporters of the 32 billion project - the first leg of which would run from London to Birmingham - say it's necessary to improve inter-city transportation links, meet carbon emission targets and re-balance economic growth across the north-south divide.
Begg, former head of transportation at the City of Edinburgh and current chair of the Commission for Integrated Transport, has predictably thrown his weight behind the HS2 project by setting up the Campaign for High-Speed Rail. He is exasperated by some of the tactics deployed by what he describes as a "very, very well-resourced and influential" NO campaign, though local advertising from his own group has drawn accusations of stoking class war.
"The truth of the matter is if local opposition was to derail a project like this, then you would never build any major infrastructure projects of this kind," Begg says. "The question I keep asking is, would there be as much opposition if it were going through a slightly less prosperous region of the UK?"
The battle is set for at least a temporary ceasefire, as the UK Government's statutory six-month consultation period draws to a close on Friday. The Secretary of State for Transport Philip Hammond (pictured below right), is expected to reveal the results of this lengthy review by December.
He will also announce conclusions from a separate but related inquiry by the Commons Transport Select Committee, which has been charged with reviewing the broader case for high-speed rail.
The committee has already received nearly 200 written submissions, and has taken oral evidence from three separate sessions.
Members also recently completed a fact-finding trip to Germany and France, where they reportedly found no one who thought Britain should not join the high-speed express.
It is due to hold two further evidence sessions, with the Scottish Chambers of Commerce and national agency Transport Scotland scheduled to appear on 6 September. They will press home the case for the extension of HS2 north of the Border.In contrast to the local strife in southern England, few in Scotland have yet publicly opposed the roll-out of HS2. Focus has more been centred around combating apathy and rallying support to the cause, a job spearheaded by the High Speed 2 Scotland (HS2S) campaign that originally operated under the wing of Scottish Chambers, and is now being driven by the Scottish Government.
"Linking Scotland much more closely, not just with London, but with the regions of England as well, will make Scotland a much more attractive investment proposition," says Garry Clark, policy manager at the Scottish Chambers of Commerce. "At the end of the day, a connected economy is a successful economy."
The consultation that closes this week deals with routing and technical aspects of the first phase of HS2 from London to Birmingham, which operator Network Rail would like to see completed by 2026. A second phase would see HS2 branch into a Y shape from Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds, with links to the west and east coast main lines, estimated to be completed by 2033.
HS2S is pushing for the remainder of the existing route north to be upgraded to high-speed capacity. The group would also like to see this construction beginning earlier in Scotland, with the aim of working north to south to meet up with the network, rather than being the final piece laid in the puzzle.
"We are hoping the Transport Committee will be pushing government very heavily in that direction," says Clark, adding that much will depend on the committee's eventual recommendations
Among those pushing equally hard in the opposite direction is the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), which last week issued an analysis citing "serious flaws" in the case for the line. The IEA described HS2 as "another political vanity project -like Concorde and the Millennium Dome", and dismissed projected economic and green benefits as over-optimistic.
"The (government] estimates for passenger growth are very high compared to independent estimates," says Richard Wellings, co-author of the report and deputy editorial director of the IEA. He points out that the UK's first high speed route, linking London to the Channel Tunnel, only achieved one-third of projected passenger numbers before the government eventually wrote off the remainder of its debt from that project.
The institute argues that HS2 will be poor value for taxpayers' money, and Wellings contends this would continue to be the case if high-speed expanded into Scotland. "The costs of extending the line would be enormous, particularly if it takes the direct route through mountainous terrain," he says.
Supporters say the eventual benefits will outweigh the initial capital outlay, citing the 19.8bn in direct economic gains that pro-high speed group Greengauge 21 has estimated would accrue north of the Border. They also claim that the economic argument strengthens as the high-speed network is expanded, with a 9:1 return ratio for the Scottish link well above the minimum 2.2 benefit-to-cost ratio that the Department for Transport generally deems acceptable.
Iain Docherty, professor of public policy at the University of Glasgow and non-executive director at Transport Scotland, is circumspect on some of the "bolder benefits" it is claimed HS2 will bring. In particular, he cautions that railroads are a two-way connection that will not necessarily funnel London's affluence into regions of slower economic growth. "The arguments are that it is an economic panacea, which it is not," he says.
However, he also points out that something must be done soon, as there is little prospect of any significant new road or air capacity being constructed in the UK. Meanwhile, routes such as the west coast main line are expected to reach capacity in less than a decade, with some estimates predicting the tipping point could come in just five years.
"The most important thing to consider is capacity, but if you are going to build a new railway, you might as well make it a fast one," says Docherty.
Should HS2 eventually reach Scotland, train times to London would be slashed by about half to slightly more than two hours from either Glasgow or Edinburgh.
Some eight million trips are made annually from Scotland to London, with 6.5 million of these by air. But with airlines increasingly allocating landing and take-off slots to more profitable long-haul flights, a squeeze on domestic connections is anticipated.
Voicing its support for HS2 at the end of last week, the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) said the regional benefits of improved connectivity to London "should not be understated". Its findings, compiled after five months of gathering input from engineers and business leaders across the UK, concluded that HS2 would be especially beneficial in the Midlands, the north of England and Scotland.
"Our view is that a nationwide network covering the whole of mainland Britain is what we would like to eventually see," says Alan Stilwell, a member of the ICE's transportation expert panel. "By and large, the ICE regions are very supportive of the principle of HS2, and we strongly believe it should be extended to other key UK cities."
With tight public budgets and no small degree of political pressure, it remains to be seen whether the government will indeed press ahead with its high-speed proposals. Begg worries that complacency by HS2 supporters could allow the project to stumble at the first hurdle, rendering discussions about further extensions academic.
"To get high speed rail to Manchester and Leeds and then Scotland, we have to first win this debate that London to Birmingham goes ahead," he said.
Britain on the fast track
2003: First section of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link opens
2006: Channel Tunnel link rebranded as High Speed 1 (HS1)
2009: Network Rail publishes proposals for High Speed 2 (HS2)
2011: Consultation on HS2 closes in July - decision is due by year-end
2019: Earliest start date for construction of HS2 Phase 1 from London to Birmingham
2026: First trains due to run on Phase 1
2033: First trains expected to be running on Phase 2 to Manchester and Leeds