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High-speed rail is a rich man’s plaything

HS2 will benefit a few corporate centres and leave everyone else behind, argues Mike Geddes

July 6, 2012
7 min read

Photo: Stefano Maffei

In January, transport secretary Justine Greening announced that the 250 mph HS2 high speed rail link between London and Birmingham, to be extended later to Manchester and Leeds, was to go ahead. Maria Eagle, the shadow transport minister, had some reservations, but nonetheless supported the government.

This cross-party consensus reflects the belief that HS2 will solve the apparent capacity problems on our inter-city rail routes and bring jobs and regeneration to the regions, helping to bridge the north-south divide. Greening’s predecessor as transport secretary, Philip Hammond, said a high speed rail network would have a ‘transformational’ impact and ‘change the social and economic geography of Britain’. And if other European countries are pressing ahead with high speed rail, how can the UK not do so? If Frère Jacques has fast trains, they argue, we must have a faster one.

Dubious claims

While the pro-HS2 lobby asserts it will support huge numbers of jobs, in fact the government only claims it will create 40,000, at a cost of £17 billion. Of these, a quarter would be in construction. Of the remaining 30,000, more than two thirds will be in London, less than a third in Birmingham, and many of them would not be new jobs but relocations from elsewhere in the region. This is not surprising – overwhelming research evidence shows that the biggest and strongest city will be the major beneficiary of new transport links. So much for reducing the north-south divide.

Nor does HS2 have much in the way of green credentials. The government can only claim vaguely that it would be no more carbon intensive over its lifetime than alternatives. This is because its very high speed means it uses a lot of energy. It could take some journeys off roads, but it will also stimulate new travel, including long road journeys to widely-spaced stations. Extending the network to the north of England and Scotland could cut a few internal flights, but the runway slots released would be taken up by long-haul flights, increasing carbon emissions.

The demand projections used by HS2 also seriously overstate future inter-city traffic. Improvements to the existing network, especially the West Coast Main Line, could deal with likely demand increases much more quickly and at a fraction of the cost. And that assumes that we should be blindly catering for demand, rather than controlling it.

Neoliberal transformation

So the claims for HS2 are make-believe. Hammond is right that HS2 would have a transformational effect – just not of the kind he suggests. High speed rail would indeed create a new economic geography, accentuating the inequalities of the neoliberal market economy. With stations only for London, Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham/Derby, South Yorkshire and Leeds, it would tie together major cities (which is why Labour’s big city barons like it) but create a second tier of towns served by fewer and slower trains, and marginalise whole regions – the south and south west, Wales, East Anglia – that the proposed network ignores.

This new neoliberal map of Britain, floating free of the places where most of us live and work, and ‘compressing both space and time’, in David Harvey’s phrase, would at the same time accentuate social disparities. The most affluent 20 per cent of the population make nearly half of all long distance rail journeys. As Hammond admitted in a rare moment of realism, HS2 will be a ‘rich man’s toy’. And the government’s willingness to adopt from Labour a route that slices through a clutch of Conservative constituencies testifies to the hegemony of post-Thatcherite neoliberal conservatism over the old ‘shire’ Toryism.

The process by which HS2 is being imposed also bears all the hallmarks of neoliberal ‘governance’. It is led by an unaccountable quango, HS2 Ltd, given a narrow remit to design a new rail line, thus ruling out the possibility that it would be better to spend money improving the existing rail network. Exhibiting the classic neoliberal governance model of managerialism and managed ‘participation‑lite’, HS2 did organise a national public consultation. The results showed massive opposition to the project. When asked ‘Do you agree that a national high speed rail network from London to Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester would provide the best value for money solution for enhancing rail capacity and performance?’, less than 7 per cent of respondents said yes; more than 93 per cent said no.

Grands projets inutiles

Much is made by HS2 advocates of the ‘success’ of high speed rail in Europe. Again, the reverse is the case. The Portuguese government has abandoned a £2.6 billion Lisbon–Madrid HSR link. France’s plans for TGV expansion are running into financing problems because of the recession and the country’s budget deficit. Poland is shelving plans to build a 480-kilometre line. The Dutch high speed train operator needed rescuing from bankruptcy with a £250 million government bailout; plans for an Amsterdam to Germany line have been suspended. There are other similar examples. Cities such as Lille in France are held up as examples of the regeneration impact of HSR, but in fact the regeneration of Lille has been fuelled by quite different funding programmes, and even so unemployment in the city has risen faster than nationally.

Across Europe, there is opposition to high speed rail. Under the banner of the ‘Treaty of Hendaye’ (the site of opposition to a Franco–Spanish high speed line), activists in France, Italy, Germany, Spain and the UK have joined forces against grands projets inutiles (useless mega-projects). In Stuttgart, activists against a high speed line have faced water cannon, while in the Susa Valley in Northern Italy a 20-year struggle has seen the route of the TAV project militarised to drive it forward. For these activists, linked to the World Social Forum, high speed rail is at odds with environmentally sustainable local economies and ways of life.

In England, there is an alliance of 70 local action groups opposing HS2. The government has tried to characterise the opposition as wealthy ‘nimbys’, and the line does indeed run through attractive rural areas in the Chilterns and Warwickshire. But not everyone who lives in rural areas and opposes HS2 is rich, and it also cuts through swathes of inner city London and Birmingham. In reality, it is the business and political elites who support HS2 who are the rich and privileged.

Opposition

The question is why many who might be expected to oppose projects like HS2 either support it or have not yet woken up to its implications. It is a great pity that the rail unions are taking the short term view that any new railway must be a good thing, rather than thinking about the threat to terms and conditions, and to employment elsewhere on the railways, posed by HS2.

And what about all the MPs and councillors in areas that will help pay for HS2 (an average of £51 million per constituency) but gain nothing from it, while local transport projects struggle for funding? Why should Bolton, Burnley, Barnsley and Bradford support their subordination to London, Manchester and Leeds? They might look at towns around Lille and Lyon that have suffered ‘collateral damage’ as investment has been sucked to the main regional cities with TGV stations.

Why should other trade unionists support a project creating relatively few jobs at an eye-watering cost of £400,000 each? As Labour’s Sustainable Development Commission pointed out, the transport investments of greatest benefit to local economies are local and regional links, not prestige grands projets.

The government’s decision in January to go ahead with HS2 is only the start of an extended process, leading up to a parliamentary hybrid bill, which may or may not conclude in the lifetime of this parliament. This summer, the announcement of the detailed route to Manchester and Leeds will be sure to provoke further protest. There is still time for a progressive majority to realise it is being taken for a ride and stop this neoliberalism on wheels in its tracks.

Mike Geddes chairs Offchurch HS2 Action Group in Warwickshire

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