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28 May 2015

In March, the House of Lords Economic Affairs Select Committee, chaired by Lord Hollick, published a report concluding that the Government had yet to make a convincing case for proceeding with the HS2 project, based on its own stated objectives.

The 131 page report was accompanied by a video posted on YouTube in which Lord Hollick stated that the Government had not gone far enough to demonstrate a capacity issue on the West Coast Mainline nor how HS2, as proposed, would improve the current situation.  Lord Hollick also questioned whether there had been sufficient consideration of alternative methods of rebalancing the UK economy, such as the development of regional rail links.

The report has been widely celebrated by anti HS2 campaigners who feel that the “tide is beginning to turn” in their favour.  Unfortunately for them, the Lords Committee can only make recommendations to the Government and, while officially taken into account, their report is unlikely to have any meaningful effect on the progress of the HS2 project.

However, in picking at some well publicised, pre-existing holes in the Government’s logistical and economic justifications for the project, the report will only add to increasing public scepticism (although it is noted that did not prevent the Conservative party from winning the general election).  One point made in the report which is likely to resonate with the public is that if, as forecasts suggest, business travellers will benefit most from the project, they should be charged higher fares.  This could decrease the financial burden on the tax payer, the majority of whom would derive little or no direct tangible benefit from the HS2 project.

The Lords’ key arguments were as follows:

  1. While they were generally in favour of investment in rail infrastructure, HS2 as proposed does not represent the most cost effective solution.  Slower trains and more cost effective construction could help to reduce the overall cost, as demonstrated on similar projects in Europe.
  2. As the Government has restricted access to detailed passenger usage figures, claiming commercial confidentiality, there is insufficient proof of the alleged capacity problem on the West Coast Main Line.  The Lords’ findings have indicated that it is commuters as opposed to long distance travellers causing the most overcrowding and that Fridays and Saturdays are the busiest days.
  3. The Government has not considered. in sufficient detail, alternate means of improving capacity such as the lengthening of trains and the decrease in number of first class carriages in favour of standard ones.
  4. The Government has not considered whether economic growth could be better achieved through the improved rail links between Northern cities.  The evidence from other European countries such as France suggests that rather than nationwide economic growth, the biggest benefit of this kind of project would be to London.

There have been Government responses to the report, one coming from the then deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, who said that “one of the biggest infrastructure projects in a generation should not be jeopardised by short sightedness.”  Whether the Government comes to regret failing to issue a more substantial, less dismissive statement remains to be seen.  Clearly though, no matter how well intentioned the Government’s insistence that the project continues as planned, “short sightedness” is an accusation they could well open themselves up to if they fail, point blank, to consider the points raised in the Lords report – particularly if the financial cost to the tax payer continues to rise.

It would though seem critical for the Government’s purposes to make progress with the Bill as swiftly as possible if it is to maintain its desired timetable.  Our previous post  on the result of the election identified a number of the issues that the Government faces in maintaining the speed with which matters have been handled to date.