Gerald Warner: HS2 - the runaway train

An impression of the HS2. Picture: Contributed
An impression of the HS2. Picture: Contributed
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DAVE, like a true Heir of Blair, has his own Millennium Dome. It is called HS2 and it beats Blair’s Folly into a cocked hat on all the key criteria of expense, uselessness and vanity.

Dave’s Dome trumps anything his role model devised. The Millennium Dome cost a paltry £789m and even if that represents £1.16bn in today’s money it is small change compared with HS2.

Dave now has the train set to play with and he wants everyone to know it, even if George Osborne insists on being the engine driver. It is George who holds the purse strings for HS2, but his worst enemies could not accuse him of stinginess. The construction cost of HS2 was originally estimated at £32.7bn, but last June the government set a “funding envelope” (you have to love the vocabulary) revised upwards to £42.6bn, plus £7.5bn for rolling stock. There is nothing definitive, however, about that £50bn estimate; in fact, since it was calculated at 2011 prices it must already be outdated. Some Treasury sources are suggesting £73bn as a more realistic assessment.

This is intoxicating for Dave and George: high expenditure on a personal vanity project – the “legacy”, in the language of the incompetent megalomaniacs thrown up by the democratic system to rule us – is the ultimate virility symbol. HS2 incontestably satisfies that condition, but it has other gratifying aspects too. It will devastate vast swathes of rural England – beauty spots, historic sites, farms that have been in the same family for generations – all will be bulldozed away in an iconic assertion of Tory “modernity”. There will also be a thrilling exercise of state power, as the despised little people, the “swivel-eyed loons” and “Turnip ­Taleban” so viscerally hated by Notting Hill metrosexuals, are evicted in a ­dramatic demonstration that we (the modernisers) are the masters now.

What of Scotland? The prospects here are indeed dazzling. Although there is as yet no guarantee, it is possible that by 2033 the completed HS2 may run on north to Edinburgh; not on any fancy new track, you understand, but via the existing Victorian permanent way to deliver enormous benefits to Scots. These may be summarised as a 20-minute reduction in journey time to London, from the four hours currently taken by the fastest trains to three hours 38 minutes. And all that for a mere £73bn, or whatever the cost will have escalated to by 2033; it makes one proud to think Scottish taxpayers will have contributed generously to this Great Leap Forward.

Sadly, all this visionary stuff is a pipe dream. HS2 will not happen, though it may do enormous fiscal, social and environmental harm before it is abandoned. It will not revitalise the north of England: three times as many journeys will be southwards as northwards. It will drain the north, impoverish the North East in particular and benefit only London. The new city proposed for the “Meriden Gap” between Birmingham and Coventry, with 100,000 new houses, where the HS2 station would be, would create a 40-mile conurbation, with the two existing cities withering at its extremities.

All the claims for HS2 are nonsense. It is not carbon neutral, it will increase carbon emissions – its sole harmless aspect, but surely problematic for the “greenest government ever”. Passenger projections are 22 per cent imaginary, based on assumptions that people will travel just because HS2 is there. We learned otherwise from the experience of HS1, the Channel Tunnel high-speed link. Passenger numbers turned out to be one-third of the forecast, train sizes and services have had to be cut; of £7.1bn invested in it, £4bn has been written off, as well as government grants of £1.3bn. That is chickenfeed compared with the giddy figures associated with HS2.

HS1 was originally estimated as costing £1bn; the final figure was £11bn. If the unofficial current cost of HS2 at £73bn is multiplied by 11, the alarming potential for this project to bankrupt Britain is evident. HS2, moreover, will take 20 years to complete – if it is delivered on time. The inevitable cost inflation over such a time span is mind-boggling. High-speed rail is not cutting-edge: the Dutch and Belgian governments this year closed down the failed Amsterdam-Brussels route, France has just cancelled the planned TGV Paris-Nice link and in America the San Francisco­-Los Angeles line is in trouble.

Labour is playing games with Dave: when it feels it most politically advantageous it will derail his megalomaniac project. It should do so before taxpayers’ money is squandered, or voters will take a dim view of such politicking. Meanwhile, anyone who imagined that bulldozing through homosexual marriage represented the extreme limit of the Tory Party’s capacity for self-harm has been proved wrong by the HS2 folly. «

Twitter: @GeraldWarner1