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Sun April 11 2021

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Lords slam HS2 project as too expensive and not even needed

25 Mar 15 A House of Lords committee says that the government has failed to justify spending £50bn on the HS2 high speed rail project.

The House of Lords economic affairs committee argues that the government has not yet made a convincing case for why HS2 is needed.

The government sets two main objectives for HS2: increasing capacity on the railway and rebalancing the economy but the committee’s report says it fails to make a convincing case for either.

The report sets out how full information on railway usage has not been made publicly available by the government, on the grounds of commercial sensitivity. The evidence shows that long distance trains arriving at and departing from Euston are, on average, just 43% full and even during peak times are only between 50% and 60% full. Overcrowding is largely a problem confined to Friday evenings and weekends on long-distance trains and to London-bound commuter trains.

“There are less expensive options to remedy these problems than HS2 but these have not been properly reviewed,” the report says.

On rebalancing the economy, the peers reckon that London would benefit more than the north of England. The committee argues there is a strong case for improving the trans-Pennine links or building the northern legs of HS2 first, both of which could be a better way of rebalancing the economy than building the southern leg of HS2.

The committee says that the cost per mile of HS2 is estimated to be up to nine higher than the cost of constructing high speed lines in France. The committee suggests that, if HS2 is to go ahead, the cost could be reduced by building it to run at 200mph, as in Europe, instead of 250mph, terminating the line at Old Oak Common or learning lessons from France to reduce the cost of construction.

The report also points out that the cost-benefit analysis for HS2 relies on out-of-date evidence, some dating back to 1994. The Department of Transport admits that fresh evidence is required and the committee believes this should be provided before Parliament passes the HS2 enabling legislation. The government's claim that the cost-benefit analysis placed HS2 in the high value-for-money category was disputed by a number of witnesses who gave evidence to the committee. They assessed it as being in the bottom 10% of projects for value-for-money.

Lord Hollick, chairman of the House of Lords economic affairs committee, said: “At £50bn HS2 will be one of the most expensive infrastructure projects ever undertaken in the UK but the government have not yet made a convincing case for why it is necessary.

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The committee are supportive of investment in rail infrastructure, but are not convinced that HS2 as currently proposed is the best way to deliver that investment. The government are basing the justification for HS2 on two factors – increased rail capacity and rebalancing the UK economy; we have not seen the evidence that it is the best way to deliver either.

“Overcrowding on the West Coast Main Line is largely a problem on commuter trains and on long-distance trains immediately after peak time on Friday evenings and at some weekends. The government have not carried out a proper assessment of whether alternative ways of increasing capacity are more cost effective than HS2.

Full information on railway usage has not been made publicly available by the government on grounds of commercial sensitivity. The plausibility of the government’s claim that there are current long distance capacity constraints and also its forecast of future passenger demand are difficult to assess without full access to current railway usage. The investment of £50bn investment of public money demands nothing less than full transparency.

“In terms of rebalancing, London is likely to be the main beneficiary from HS2. Investment in improving rail links in the north of England might deliver much greater economic benefit at a fraction of the cost of HS2.

“We have set out a number of important questions on HS2 that the government must now provide detailed answers to.  Parliament should not approve the enabling legislation that will allow HS2 work to begin until we have satisfactory answers to these key questions.”

Members of the committee include former chancellor Lord (Nigel) Lawson. The full membership of the committee is:

  • Lord Hollick (Chairman) – Labour
  • Baroness Blackstone – Labour
  • Lord Carrington of Fulham – Conservative
  • Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach – Conservative
  • Lord Lawson of Blaby – Conservative
  • Lord McFall of Alcluith – Labour
  • Lord May of Oxford – Crossbench
  • Lord Monks – Labour
  • Lord Rowe-Beddoe – Crossbench
  • Lord Shipley – Liberal Democrat
  • Lord Skidelsky – Crossbench
  • Lord Smith of Clifton – Liberal Democrat
  • Baroness Wheatcroft – Conservative

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