Home > General Politics, Terrible Tories > The quiet high-speed lie

The quiet high-speed lie

Alex Massie at the Spectator thinks the government may be gilding the high speed lily:

I suspect the economic case for the proposals is weaker than its proponents allow.

He’s right.

The governnment ‘s Economic Case for HS2: Updated appraisal of transport user benefits and wider economic benefits, published to justify the London-Birmingham stretch says )para 3.5.4)

There may also be significant local effects; for instance, a new station can act as a magnet for economic activity and drive regeneration in deprived areas.


You’d have thought that for a £32bn scheme there might be a bit more than a ‘may’, and some actual research into its possible and likely consequences for the areas concerned.

Not so.

After a few paragraphs of vague wish lists about what ‘wider economic impacts’ (WEIs) the scheme might bring in the form of business clustering and labour markets, we get this at 3.5.8 of the same report:

The WEIs guidance is carefully designed to measure national impacts. However, at a regional and local level the effects of HS2 on the distribution of activity could also be very significant.

Is “could” better than “may”?

Then, finally, we get to the nub (para 3.5.9-10):

[A]lthough there are many examples where growth and regeneration has been delivered around a high speed rail station, there may be balancing effects across the wider area. However, the circumstances in which, and extent to which, this happens is not clear….

These local impacts are considered more fully in the Review of HS2 London to West Midlands Appraisal of Sustainability report.

But if you’re anal enough to go to the Review of HS2 London to West Midlands Appraisal of Sustainability report, it runs out that no such consideration has been given (para 1.3.1):

In undertaking this assessment account has been taken of the socio-economic impact of transport schemes including other high speed rail schemes. It is commonly accepted that the main impact on land use, of new stations or improved services, is located within a 10-15 minutes walking distance of the station, which equates to a catchment area of 1km.

Thus, the report is not by, any stretch of the imagination, an assessment of wider impacts.  That’s not what 1km from a station is.  That’s a local impact assessment. Indeed the report acknowledges this when at para .1.3.5):

The next steps in developing the socio-economic appraisal may be to……investigate the wider regional impacts of high speed rail, for example, how the Black Country region would be affected by the introduction of High Speed Rail to Birmingham (para 1.3.5.).

In summary, then the wider regional impact investigation recommended in the previous report has not been undertaken, but the final report published by the government pretends that it has.

Call me old-fashhioned, but I think that’s lying.

And this is not simply an esoteric point about what is and isn’t in what DfT document.

This is about the spending of  £33bn on a scheme which has the real capacity to wreak havoc on people in towns and cities – most likely some distance from the new stations but close enough to see economic activity “sucked away”.

As I set out here, such concerns are summed up in a 2009 paper ‘High Speed Rail: Lessons for Policy Makers from Experiences Abroad’, in which the authors study the actual post-construction impact of schemes in Japan, France, Spain and Italy:

[F]or regions and cities whose economic conditions compare unfavorably with those of their neighbors, a connection to the HST line may even result in economic activities being drained away and an overall negative impact……Medium size cities may well be the ones to suffer most from the economic attraction of the more dynamic, bigger cities. Indeed, Haynes (1997) points out that growth is sometimes at the expense of other centers of concentration.

Time will tell whether my concerns are justified, but what we can already be certain of is that £32bn of public money is to be spent on a scheme which has not been properly research, and the justification for which is underpinned by quiet, but important, lie in the small print.

Meanwhile, the £60m it would cost (about 1/500th of what’s needed for HSR) to build a rail link to Skelmersdale’s 40,000 residents to any railway at all is still not forthcoming.

  1. January 30, 2013 at 2:31 pm

    Isn’t Rainford train station about 3 miles from Skelmersdale?
    Not saying that’s great, but there are other parts of Britain in a worse situation.

    One thing I find interesting is that nowhere in the world has a HS line cost as much to build as the estimates for HS2. Not sure if that’s part of the politics.

  2. metatone
    January 30, 2013 at 2:38 pm

    Our medium size cities have already undergone a serious shrinkage – I fear this kind of consolidation isn’t about transport per se, as much as about how IT has changed the way businesses organise themselves.

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