HS2: High speed journey to self-delusion

HS2: High speed journey to self-delusion

by Brian Monteith
article from Friday 1, February, 2013

POLITICIANS SHOULD never, never, be allowed near railways. Not even train sets. It is as potentially corrupting a recipe as politicians and prostitutes, or politicians and a brewery. (Notice how politicians are the common denominator, by the way.) They are likely to make fools of themselves (the politicians, not the prostitutes) and afterwards we all have to clear up the mess they have left behind, including paying for the expense!

You can probably guess why I write this. This week the David Cameron, Nick Clegg Coalition – in the brief moment when they are agreeing on anything – announced how they were pressing ahead with taking High Speed rail 2, or HS2 as it’s commonly known, beyond Birmingham and on to Manchester and Leeds.

It is possibly the most profoundly stupid of all the coalition’s decisions, no less so because it was of course inherited from the disastrous Labour administration that has bankrupted our land twice over but still had many more ideas to bankrupt future generations too.

Now before you think I’m some swivel-eyed railway hater that decries anything that is mass transit and would rather see everyone have their own supercharged Segways (not a bad idea actually!) I have an admission. I love railways. There, I’ve said it, and I’ll start attending the meetings after I write this.

I was born with a British Rail teaspoon in my mouth. My granddad worked for LNER and then BR. I was raised with the smell of soot from St Margaret’s Loco Sheds caressing my mother’s laundry; a sort of working class Comfort conditioner. My dad bought me a Marklin train set, the finest in the world. I trainspotted from the age of eleven until I discovered the joys of The Who and making teenage girls smile. I know my Bo-Bo’s from my Co-Co’s and I once drove a Deltic all of three yards. Oh, and I waved to the passengers on the last Waverley Line train leaving Edinburgh for the Borders.

Don’t get me going on about railways. It’s probably why I didn’t lose my virginity until I was seventeen (that was late at my school).

Notwithstanding all that nostalgia, the idea of investing a shed-load of money in this HS2 project is little short of a crime – and I shall tell why without defending the view from some Home Counties’ manor or the chopping down of ancient oaks in leafy English glades – although I do think those things are worth defending.

The case is put that building HS2 it will create 100,000 jobs. Let’s look at that rather suspiciously certain figure (not 97,351 or 102,500). Is it 100,00 jobs next year or in ten year’s time? No – or at least we are not told that by our smiling politicians that take us for fools. More likely it is 100,000 jobs over the lifetime of the project, which at some twenty-odd years is about 5,000 jobs a year.

That’s about the same as would be employed at a large steelworks or a car manufacturer over the same period, only those things are funded by private capital unless you are talking North Korea or France.

The cost is conservatively put at £32 billion, which is £320,000 a job – a preposterous make-work scheme. We would be better buying 700,000 top of the scale Range Rover Evoques, giving them to random citizens and letting them do what they want with them. It would employ over 5,000 workers at Range Rover and all the associated suppliers, while the owners could sell them and live the Life of Reilly or keep them and pretend to live the Life of Beckham. That too is an absurd idea but it no more or less absurd than claiming HS2 is good because it will create jobs.

The truth is it steals jobs by taking food out of the mouths of babes.

You see the cost of £32 billion is not money that the government has. The country is broke. It’s bust. Kaput. The national debt is £1,123,154,586,105 and rising as I type. Interest is pretty much towards zero, probably 2% for government. It only needs to go up to 3% and the interest on our debt has increased from £48 billion to £72 billion. Get the picture?

The smiling politicians say that for every £1 spent on HS2 there will be £2 generated. This is economic chicanery, for the £1 spent is public (in other words taxpayers’ money – your money) but for it to recover this money it would have to tax the £2 generated by 50% tax. Since when has this government been advocating 50% per cent tax rates on VAT (20%), corporation tax (22%) or income tax (22%)? It doesn’t and no other party shall. Not even Ed Miliband’s Labour. Or Ed Balls.

What I’m saying is that the money will never be recovered, the project will massage the unemployment figures by about 5,000 a year and all for the average cost of £6 billion a year. Who will pay for this self-delusion? Well probably not me, but certainly my sons and most certainly their offspring too. Of course it will not matter if they live in Devon or Belfast or Fife or Carmarthen – not using the HS2 or driving a free Range Rover Evoque – but they will still have to pay for the borrowed capital and the interest. Now see how foolish it is?

There are of course better things that could be done, like leaving the money with the financiers and letting private developers and speculators borrow the money – to develop and speculate – taking all of the risk in finding what will bring a real return by meeting demand for goods and services here or for export. That’s called a market and that’s what modern-day Conservatives are meant to believe in and Liberals once believed in a century ago.

If the government did not borrow the £32 billion it would not then have to repay the capital and interest but would – from the tax receipts generated on the activities of a private sector given more room to grow – be able to reduce the national debt and remove the horrendous burden that our generation has passed on to my sons and their sons and daughters.

So the economic case is just sheer madness – the type that used to justify Concord before it became Concorde (the French insisted on the ‘e’) or digging holes and filing them in again. It’s not as if HS2 will run at a profit, which is why Sir Richard Branson is not elbowing his way like normal to the front of the capitalist queue. You could bet that if he saw a shilling in it he would be all over our TV screens. But he’s not. He sees more money in flying people to the moon. Does that not tell you something?

Indeed there is not a high speed railway network in the world that pays its way. Those in Spain and France are losing money hand-over-fist. These once personal political vanity projects become so big that they become national monuments that cannot be allowed to fail. It would be like saying the Eiffel Tower should be pulled down because the Paris Exhibition is over.

People do get carried way over HS2. I even heard one advocate say on Sky News that the project could make Britain a world leader in high speed trains! Really – after they have been built in Spain, France, Germany and have been in Japan for fifty years and not one was built by Britain? We will be using imported technology that will drive our balance of payments deficit even higher.

But, and here’s the rub, wearing my railway hat it’s not even good for transport. The problem with our railways is that they are overcrowded and that the express routes cannot get any faster as there is not the capacity in track to allow trains to overtake. Nor are there enough extended platforms to let trains be longer. Here then lies the real solution for true railway supporters. Put more track down where it already exists – thus giving less environmental impact. Extend platforms, lengthen train-sets and open new stations (with car parks).

A great deal like this can be done for less than £32 billion – and much of it could probably be done with private speculator’s capital – letting them take the risk and receiving the rewards. Better still it would mean the benefits could be felt in Devon, Belfast, Fife and Carmarthen. Ivor Tiefenbrun writes on this Home Page about the need for genuine regional policy that strengthens the United Kingdom. Such a revolution for Britain’s railways could be part of that policy.

Relieving the overcrowding of trains in towns and cities that will not see any benefit from HS2 would come from this approach – nor would it be the poisoned chalice that HS2 actually is. For if there’s one thing HS2 will do it is to encourage people to believe they can commute from Manchester and Leeds (and even Glasgow and Edinburgh), sucking people and their money into the Metropolis, rather than enriching the local regional economies as is claimed.

Just as the rural areas of Britain were drained of their people by the railways in the nineteenth century, travelling to the growing mill towns and cities of the new steam age, so to will people and their wealth, in the widest sense, be drained to London.

And when our great railways were built in the nineteenth century it was done with private money. Some of the projects, like HS2 now, were all about vanity. But they were at least private, and shareholders and capitalists often lost their shirts. Some lines famously never paid. Some closed only a few years later or after a quarry had spewed its all and there was no reason to keep open. But it was the investors’ risk – not that of the poor working classes.

To believe the growth of Britain’s railways was anything other than fantastic trial and error – with a profit motive – is sentimental eyewash. Today in a time when markets are limited, and error in our risk-averse culture is offensive, we should beware politicians that want to be fat controllers with borrowed money. Let them have a train set, but tell them to put their own hands in their pockets and keep them out of ours.

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