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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 2012

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.


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

Richard 6 July 2012, 12.35

40,000 is quite a large number of jobs. I would rather see investment in local transport than an intercity rail link, but this project could help reduce air travel – it improves the connections between Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds and France and Belgium.

The issue you hint at is how much the tickets would be for HS2. If they are £300 from London-Birmingham or something ludicrous like that, only the rich can afford them. There is no point in spending large sums of public money on a route that will only benefit 1% of those who live near a station. The only good thing is that it might get more cars off the road.

Ash 6 July 2012, 15.14

It’s misleading to state that Hammond said HS2 would be a rich man’s toy. He said that rail travel in general was a rich man’s toy, before rather hastily adding that there were also some great bargains out there – and that HS2 would probably follow the same kind of fares structure.

Anonymous 6 July 2012, 15.27

all jobs create further economic growth and income and sales tax revenue to the taxpayer and any job created is one less person on benefits.

someone who lives somewhere north of london but takes a job in london contributes to the national economy through taxes so the whole country benefits. and they will spend money locally wherever they happen to live.
mike gedes may have the luxury of believing that ohn ony 4000 jobs aren’t worth it. it is also clear that currently run down areas of birmingham would benefit greatly from the hs2 terminals location and businesses would locate there and take advantage of excellent transport connections.

this must have been a quiet news day. Firstly we have had the nao audit report rehashed which we knew about back in march and which in fact concluded that hs1 benefits would outweigh the costs in the long run. now we have the tired boring worn out reitteration of the rich mans toy !!! so predictable.

Alex McKenna 6 July 2012, 15.36

Complete tosh as usual. Rich men don’t need to travel here and there by train – the rest of us do. I can’t “video-conference” myself to anywhere I need to visit, either for my work, shopping or my social life.
“Improving” other lines has been done already on most lines, especially the West-Coast and is never as cost-effective as making a new pathway for trains, and that’s what we need, as a bypass to stop the whole thing having a heart-attack.
Some anti-HS2 people have never been on typical over-crowded trains these days. Standing-room only for hours.
We need more paths for all the trains..

Shirley J 7 July 2012, 16.33

Half truths as usual with HS2 Alex – yes the WCML has been improved and gets high satisfaction ratings from passengers. The average occupation of long-distance trains leaving Euston at peak times, according to a survey published in the Financial Times, is 57%. Where there is over-crowding is on the commuter services. Grade separation at Ledburn junction could double commuter capacity on the WCML in 5 years at a cost of £500 million, but we can’t do that because it would undermine even more the fragments of the case for HS2.

If the government really cared about rail travellers it would be investing in the services that the majority of passengers use, which are commuter services. And if it really cared about over-crowding it would start with the lines into Paddington, which is where all 10 of the top ten most over-crowded trains terminate.

And as for job creation – over £400,000 per job for every job created by HS2 would buy an awful lot of jobs if it was directly invested in growth rather than squandered on HS2, a lot more quickly.

But HS2 isn’t really about capacity or growth – its main beneficiaties will be the shareholders and directors of the construction companies that are lobbying so hard for it. Yes HS2 is a rich man’s toy.

Michael Kenny 8 July 2012, 12.56

A sad example of how the far “left” is ever more a conservative, if not downright reactionary, force in politics!The alternatives to high-speed rail are motorways and regional aviation, both much more damaging in ecological terms. Equally, claims that HSR is unsuccessful and projects are being abandoned in other parts of Europe are untrue. Projects are being delayed by the economic crisis, not because of any dissatisfaction with HSR, and a return to a jobs and growth agenda will probably get them going again. Moreover, there is no serious opposition to HSR anywhere in Europe (not even in Britain). The dispute in Stuttgart is about the replacement of the present dead-end station with an underground through station and the destruction of a park that that involves. The HSR line there has been in service for years. Other than that, opposition is just the usual local obscurantists to object to every change that’s ever proposed. That the far left finds itself in that camp shows just how irrelevant it has become.

Anne 26 July 2012, 09.30

Even if it takes 3 hours to get to London it’s still faster than taking the plane what with having to arrive 2 hours before take off for security checks. Plus you can’t use your phone on the plane whereas you have more room to use laptops and phones on trains.
Why are we letting ourselves be “railroaded” (forgive the pun) into spending billions in taxpayers money for little reward or improvement. It is a simple argument – few ordinary working people would benefit and this government is spending our hard earned money for the benefit of big business ie their mates.

Comments are now closed on this article.

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