Tuesday, May 22, 2012

high speed low sense

An MP publicly criticising their party leader, especially when in government, used to be a dramatic rarity, occasionally resulting in a motion of no confidence, usually defeated by those remaining loyal or just scared of how an adverse outcome might affect themselves. With the rise of more opportunities outside of the House of Commons for airing grievances, gaining easy publicity and ingratiating themselves to their constituents, such criticisms are more frequent and less newsworthy. A 'misunderstanding', to use the political parlance.

But when a Tory MP and personality like Nadine Dorries calls the PM and his chancellor of the exchequer "not only posh boys but arrogant posh boys with no passion to understand the lives of others" then that is criticism indeed and damaging at that. Leaving the robotic Osborne aside, Cameron probably does want to understand the lives of others but just doesn't know how to. This and the arrogance bit are exemplified in the folly of the plans for the high speed railway known as HS2.

I have written about this before and I will again and I make no apology because it is so damaging, so unnecessary, so irrational, so unforgivable and so so so expensive that it must be stopped. The government's own underestimate of the cost has already risen by £4bn to over £36bn and that doesn't include the £8bn or so for trains (a curious omission), nor the environmental costs. At over £160m per mile it will be the most expensive railway in the world.

In April the Public Accounts Committee called HS2's financial assumptions 'bonkers'. HS2 says the railway will create jobs, but that is another assumption without basis. It won't, apart from the ones being created now at HS2 where there will shortly be over 300 employees, some now being recruited on annual salaries of £100k. Meanwhile, not surprisingly, HS2 admits that their Benefit to Cost Ratio for the project (i.e. the return on every £1 invested) has fallen from £2.40 to £1.20. If all costs are included it falls much further to about 50p, a hugely negative return. The Taxpayers Alliance calculates the net cost to the taxpayer at over £45bn.

In determining the benefits, HS2 have included an illusory financial gain from reducing journey time between London and Birmingham by a few minutes. This is clutching at straws to try and justify the unjustifiable. HS2 can never ever make money. A compulsory assessment of the project has concluded that, on a traffic light rating system, HS2 has a red-amber rating. That officially means “the successful delivery of the project is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas. Urgent action is needed to ensure these are addressed, and whether resolution is feasible.” The PAC didn't think much of this either. The Department for Transport brightly commented that "Amber-red is not something we aspire to stay in". Really ? Who'd have thought ?

Even if HS2 were managing the project competently, and they are a million miles from that, this is a national madness. Sickeningly damaging to people, towns, countryside, homes, and the environment, just so we can say to the world "look what we've got". But the world won't be impressed. There is not the demand for it, certainly not for HS2's plan for 18 trains an hour each carrying 1000 people, and there are much better alternatives that will cater for any likely increase in demand for faster rail travel and greater capacity. We are not the first in Europe to have the daft idea. High speed lines in Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and Poland have had to be closed or bailed out by their governments. USA and a number of other countries have turned against the concept of high speed rail.

Weekly, if not daily, more arguments against the senseless project materialise. HS2 Action Alliance is currently engaged in legal action against HS2 by way of judicial reviews, suspicions have been raised about two of the directors of HS2, there are doubts about the safety of a train travelling at 225mph, and the Treasury are beginning to realise that the country doesn't have the money to throw away.

And that money could be better spent in so many ways. One way, which really would give huge tangible benefit to people and businesses is to improve our forlorn broadband capability. Ranked only 16th in Europe in terms of average speed, we are also way behind some countries in other continents that we used to call Third World. The case against HS2 is clear. There is no half decent argument for it and plenty of compelling arguments against. Nearly everybody is saying so but Nadine's Posh Minister is not listening.



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