Yesterday’s announcement about High Speed 2 was given more significance by the media than perhaps it deserved. The route of the track from Birmingham to Leeds and Manchester, and the sites for the stations on the northern lines, remains to be finalised. If all goes according to plan the first passangers could travel on the new trains to Birmingham in 2026, and to the more northerly destinations in 2032-3.
I asked how much money will be spent this Parliament on this project. I was told just £200 million. This presumably covers the further work on consulting the public, confirming the works on the Birmingham section and choosing from the options for the northern legs. I was told that no construction contracts will be let this Parliament.
This means that a new government elected in 2015 at the scheduled General Election will in practice be able to make up its own mind about this project then, before letting the contracts. It will need to fit into the budgets being drawn up by the new government. It will need to demonstrate value for money and a good ratio of benefits to costs to the then Secretary of State for Transport and Chief Secretary to the Treasury. It would be wise to look again then at the forecasts of passenger demand, likely fare revenue, and the ratio of costs to benefits. It is also likely that voters in the affected constituencies will make this a continuing issue in the 2015 election.
I understand the strong feelings of some in the north that they would like to see this project go ahead to provide better travel links between north and south, in the expectation that it will stimulate northern economic activity. Such a view needs to grasp that we are talking about contributions to the economy from construction jobs towards the end of this decade, and stimulus to the wider economy from the transport links after 2026, 14 years away.
It makes it even more important that the present government, spared significant cost for this new railway, spends what money it does have in its transport budgets to boost other rail and road capacity for maximum economic advantage for the whole country as soon as possible. This one day railway will neither help the UK out of the recent recession by construction jobs soon, nor provide the stimulus to northern economic development this decade. This very fast train is on a very slow planning and building timetable.
The original London to Birimingahm railway took just five years to build, despite the opposition of local landowners who forced diversions of the route in places. It was also built with private sector finance. Not everything has got better and slicker.
Meanwhile, the best possible investment for the greater early success of northern – and southern – UK business might be better and faster broadband. Like the railways in the Victorian era, this is the latest technology, with much more private finance around to go into it.