It is quite something to oppose a project supported by all three main parties – but not UKIP – and which is touted as vital for the British economy.
Moreover, it seems even more unlikely that a railway specialist such as myself, who thinks they were the most significant invention of the 19th century and are still the best way to travel should be against a scheme to create a high speed line across Britain.
But I am. And have been since the plan was first published by Andrew Adonis in 2009. The reason is simple. This is a grand projet conceived as a standalone project with little reference to the existing railway or to the nation’s overall transport needs.
It did not emerge through some careful and detailed debate over the future infrastructure requirements of the country but rather was rushed out at the tail end of the long period of Labour rule as a back of the envelope scheme to address rail capacity.
The scheme, however, fails on most counts. Amazingly, there is no environmental case for the line. Far from reducing CO2 emissions, the environmental assessment reckons that broadly the line will be environmentally neutral. That is because many passengers will transfer from existing rail services which use up less fuel as they go more slowly.
Indeed, the emphasis on speed is another aspect of the route’s design that is questionable. The line is being built to be capable of 250mph operation, a speed which is achieved by no other high speed line in the world, and yet we are a compact nation with short distances between our major cities.
This does not just have consequences for the energy use of the trains, but also restricts the possible choice of routes and, indeed, was partly responsible for the decision not to use the M1 corridor as the alignment.
The other reason the M1 was ruled out was because another requirement of the design brief was to have a station at Old Oak Common. This is partly dictated by concerns over the fact that Euston will be overwhelmed if nothing is done to increase the capacity of Tube lines serving the station.
Worst of all, however, is the business case. This is calculated using an archaic and arcane system of comparing the costs with the benefits, which are mostly time savings of people using the line. This, too, has had a damaging effect on the route’s design since anything which slows down services would weaken the business case. Therefore, the overall scheme has very few stations although there are two in London and two in Birmingham with none in between. No one could possibly argue that this is an optimal design.
Even with these constraints, the business case remains weak. The benefit cost ratio is reckoned to be between 1.4 (without wider economic benefits) for the first section and 2.4 for the whole line is the wider economic benefits are included. Even this higher figures is pretty weak for such a massive scheme. In any case, the methodology is deeply flawed. It is based on a past era when people could not work on trains and therefore journey time was wasted. That is not the case today. Indeed, many people like myself find they can do their most effective work on trains!
The lack of a coherent case to build HS2 has led the promoters to change tack. They now emphasise its benefits as a way reducing the north south divide. However, there is little evidence that a high speed railway will benefit the weaker region of the two which it connects.
Analysis by Professor John Tomaney of University College, who looked at high-speed rail schemes in France, suggests that it has been the bigger cities, rather than the regions, which have benefited most from their construction.
The only reason to support the scheme is that it is the only game in town. It would be naïve to expect any savings made from scrapping it to go towards other transport projects. Indeed, they are likely to go towards knocking a few decimals percentages off debt or on other even less useful projects.
The process however has not yet gathered unstoppable momentum. Certainly, the project supporters have got the wind in their sails with the rejection of the court cases challenging the process and the retention of support from all three parties, but cost remains an issue, as do the vagaries of the Parliamentary process which is now looking unlikely to be completed before the next election (hybrid bills, however, like this one can, unlike other bills, be carried over between Parliaments).
It is tragic, however, that we have not had the opportunity to redesign the whole rail network around this modern line and therefore tailor its design accordingly. Instead we are about to spend £50bn on a flawed scheme that will, even by the calculations of the government’s own methodology, not be value for money.
The constraints imposed on the designers of the route meant that no proper assessment of the best line was ever made. While I oppose this specific scheme, I am not against high speed rail but I would much rather see a line that was far better integrated with the existing network and which was not required to run at a speed that is unsustainable and unnecessary.
Christian Wolmar is a writer and broadcaster specialising in transport and is seeking the Labour nomination for the 2016 London mayoral election. www.wolmarforlondon.co.uk @wolmarforlondon His latest book is a history of the Transsiberian, To the edge of the world published by Atlantic Books