Is HS2 really the best way to spend £33bn?
Photo credit: Lawrence Whittemore
June 18, 2013 // By: David Theiss
We are on the verge of the biggest transport investment in UK history. With a cost to taxpayers of £33bn, High Speed 2 (HS2)’s massive price tag is almost too big to visualise – which might explain how it has got this far without more public concern over its lack of a fair and transparent appraisal, and its (as yet) unproven value to our country.
The economic case for major infrastructure investment is clear, and you certainly can’t fault HS2 on its objectives. £33 billion spent on fixing Britain’s skewed economic geography and making our transport greener and more resilient is £33billion well spent in anyone’s books – if it works.
But is wise to plough such huge sums on a single project when spreading the same budget across many smaller, more robust schemes would positively transform the UK’s broader transport landscape? Do we really want to spend 20 years waiting for the HS2 line to inch into shape, when there are numerous shovel ready, targeted options that could (a) be rolled out in a fraction of the time, (b) benefit more people across a wider area and (c) beat HS2 at its own objectives? We cannot know for sure without a proper appraisal process.
That’s why we have released our new report today - to shift the HS2 debate to where it matters. The question we need to ask now is not ‘Is HS2 a good or bad investment?’ but ‘Is HS2 is the best investment we can make with such an enormous sum?’
To make the point, our report illustrates the kind of bold transport investment package we believe would achieve better value for taxpayers money. It’s an example of the kind of real alternative that has been missing from the government’s appraisal of HS2 to date: one of similar cost and size that can put the costs and benefits of HS2 in proportion. We suggest dividing the £33 billion across the following areas:
- £10 billion on upgrading our exiting North-South mainlines – to improve speed and capacity of inter-regional travel while avoiding the need for an ecologically disastrous new line.
- £10 billion to overhaul regional rail around the country – because improving shorter, commuter links between and within non-London cities would give a much bigger lift to existing employment centres than a sole focus on long-distance travel.
- £6 billion on improving bus and light rail (e.g. tram) networks around the UK – and introducing smart ticketing systems (like London’s Oyster card) to make low-carbon public transport and simpler, more everyday option for travellers.
- £2 billion on better biking and walking infrastructure – to improve wellbeing and help make regional cities places that people want to live and businesses want to locate
- £5.5 billion on rolling out ultra fast ‘to-the-door’ broadband coverage across the UK – boosting business and reducing the demand for unnecessary business travel.
The investments we propose offer a taster of how, by tearing its eyes away from London, and focusing on making inclusive, multi-modal improvements across the country, the government could go further towards joining up the dots in our transport system.
There could be much better ways to meet our national goals than HS2. We urge the government, as custodians of our scarce public resources, to step back from blindly pushing this one flashy, train project and assess our options fully.
Alternative infrastructure investments could give taxpayers better value for money.