Monday, March 28, 2011

HS2 - the Birmingham by-pass

How come nobody seems to have mentioned the planned HS2 high-speed rail system will actually pass us all by?

Instead of the West Midlands becoming the heart of the country’s rail system, we’ll be left in the sidings.

We’re constantly told the HS2 scheme is brilliant for business and only cure to all known economic ills for Birmingham and the rest of the region.

It’s bluff and nonsense.

If HS2 is built, the only area to definitely lose out in the long run will be the West Midlands.

Short journey times to London from Birmingham are irrelevant but from Manchester and Leeds they might make a difference.

It is simply not in our interests to see the thing built – but nobody seems willing to acknowledge that.

In these days of austerity, the idea of splurging £32 billion on a shiny new railway line seems like Imelda Marcos shopping for shoes with the starving at the palace gates.

Yet the Coalition is determined to press ahead even though HS2 is not a British initiative. It’s just another stage in the European Union’s plan for high-speed trains to go whizzing all round its domains.

Our Government’s just following orders. Our local leaders are all on board the HS2 gravy train as well.

They argue it will create construction jobs, boost the region’s economy by unfeasible billions and somehow transform our image and fortunes.

The full scheme is not for a London-Birmingham link. It’s for a route to Manchester and another to Leeds with the line dividing to east and west around Lichfield.

Indeed, if you look at the maps, Birmingham’s on a branch line. The main route by-passes the city completely.

Not a single financial figure put out by those promoting this scheme is worth the paper it’s written on. It’s entirely guesswork and almost certainly wrong to the power of ten.

But let’s pretend the forecasters know what they’re talking about because, even if they don’t, their sums give some indication of what’s going on.

A study in Leeds claims HS2 will generate “productivity benefits” worth £2.3 billion.

But where are these benefits to be felt? Well, £750 million of them go to Leeds and another £420 million to Sheffield. London prospers to the tune of £550 million.

What about us? According to this analysis the Birmingham City Region gets £100 million. In other words, we lose out.

Transport Secretary Phillip Hammond claims HS2 will benefit Britain to the tune of £44 billion.

Much of that will go on jobs created to build the thing in the first place. And obviously, if you spend £32 billion on a new train set, it’s going to provide work for people.

But assuming you had £32 billion to spend – which we haven’t – could it be better used in other ways?

That’s another question nobody is prepared to answer.

We’re told the great benefit of high-speed trains is much shorter journey times. But few people will pay a rail fare of about £320 to save half an hour travelling between Birmingham and London.

That alleged benefit doesn’t take into account the time it takes to drive to the station, park the car, get a ticket and wait for the train. Nor does it account for time spent at the other end getting from the station to your destination.

High-speed rail won’t change any of that.

If you’re travelling to Manchester or Leeds, the amount of time spent faffing around will be the same but it won’t matter as much because you’re going farther, faster.

The recently-axed quango the Commission for Integrated Transport said high-speed rail was worthwhile for travel between 180 and 375 miles.

Manchester-London is 181 miles, Leeds-London 195 miles so they both just scrape in. The Commission said there was “little benefit” for journeys of less than 180 miles. Birmingham-London is 109 miles.

The only place in this country which has so far enjoyed the dubious privilege of being a through station on a high-speed line is Ashford in Kent.

The economic benefits to the whole county were much-trumpeted in advance but, since it opened, various studies show Ashford’s economy has remained virtually untouched, unlike the Kent countryside.

It seems the small-print for HS2 suggests we may be forced into high-speed travel by the cancellation of some existing rail services between the West Midlands and London.

It may be the only way to make passengers pay a premium for the dubious pleasure of saving half an hour on the train.

So why is it deemed “unpatriotic” for people in the West Midlands to argue against HS2?

There are some vested interests at work: Birmingham Airport thinks it will become the third London airport, for instance; local politicians like to be regarded as men of vision; construction and engineering companies hope to get a hefty slice of the action.

We keep getting told HS2 is vital for the future prosperity of the West Midlands.

But how can any of us back a scheme which leaves the region standing on the platform while rich passengers rush past at 250 mph between London and the north?

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