“Poor case” for UK’s £50bn high-speed rail line

The House of Lords Economic Affairs Select Committee says the government has failed to make a convincing argument that the project should go ahead.

In a report published today, the House of Lords Economic Affairs Select Committee says that the planned High-Speed Two (HS2) rail project – which plans to link London with the Midlands and North of England, and possibly also Scotland – is “one of the most expensive infrastructure projects ever undertaken in the UK” and that the government has “not yet made a convincing case for why it is necessary”.

The report by the House of Lords – the upper House of Parliament, whose members are appointed rather than elected – says that the government’s two main objectives for HS2 are to increase capacity on the railway and rebalance the economy. But it says a good case has not been made for either.

On capacity, the report claims that long-distance trains going to and from Euston station in London are currently just 43 percent full on average and between 50 and 60 percent full at peak times. Although overcrowding can be an issue on Friday evenings and at weekends, the report says less expensive options are available as a remedy but have “not been properly reviewed”.

On rebalancing the economy to even out discrepancies between north and south, the report claims that evidence from other countries, such as France, shows that capital cities tend to be the biggest beneficiaries from high-speed rail – and that London would therefore benefit disproportionately from HS2. It says that the focus should either be on improving trans-Pennine links or on building the northern leg of HS2 first rather than the southern leg.

The report also draws attention to the cost of HS2, saying that estimates suggest it will be nine times more expensive than high-speed lines constructed in France. It adds that an estimated net public subsidy of £31.5 billion for the £50 billion project conflicts with the government’s stated objective of making rail less dependent on public subsidy and “should be considered against the background of financial restraint”.

The report concludes that, until the issues it raises are answered by government, “Parliament should not approve the enabling legislation that will allow HS2 work to begin”. Construction on the first phase of the project is set to begin in 2017, with a planned opening date of 2026.

The Economic Affairs Committee is one of five House of Lords select committees which conduct investigations into specialist subjects, taking advantage of the Lords’ expertise and greater amount of time (compared with Members of Parliament) to examine issues.

Not everyone agreed with the conclusions of the report. In a response, Richard Laudy, head of infrastructure at law firm Pinsent Masons, said:

“The risk to the UK of this report is that this urgently needed project is further delayed as yet more evidence is sought.

“Our infrastructure is languishing at 27th in the world and increased connectivity between the capital and the rest of the country is urgently needed, if we are to improve on this and deliver the growth that our strongly performing economy deserves.

“Unfortunately this is yet another example of further potential impediments which are such a disincentive to the many overseas investors who would welcome the opportunity to invest in our market.”