Is HS2 really what the North needs? My doubts have been growing, and I welcome the government review whatever its underlying motivation.
I originally thought it a good idea, The Japanese and French have had high speed trains for decades, so should we. But that was before the total inadequacy of our local train links in the North became a nightmare last year. The Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham, insists this isn’t an either or but both game, involving HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail. But is that realistic? HS2 could cost £100bn. Is there really going to be enough public money to invest in our trans Pennine and other local connections?
If the government does cut back or cancel HS2, the saved budget must be spent on northern infrastructure.
Burnham also argues that plans for Northern Powerhouse Rail partly depend on integration with HS2. I’m sure the plans can be redrawn to cope with a cancellation of the project.
Other doubts have crept into my mind. Isn’t HS2 just going to become a talent drain to London? Won’t the best be attracted to that great economic engine that will remain London?
Then there is new technology. I much prefer face to face meetings, but new technology will shortly offer all sorts of new ways of “virtual” meetings that will come naturally to the next generation of tech savvy business people. For them the idea of time consuming, expensive rail travel will seem like something out of the arc.
There is a suggestion that the scheme could be pared back so it would terminate at Birmingham. This would clearly be unacceptable to the North, although it would satisfy the Tory mayor of the West Midlands. Another option is to end the line at Crewe. Cheshire and Staffordshire local authorities and businesses have invested their hopes in developing a major hub here, but it is not central enough to the North as a whole.
This isn’t a black and white issue for me. I had the privilege of hosting forums for the rail engineering industry a few years ago. I was impressed with their plans to invest in apprenticeships for the young engineers that would be working on this project in the next two decades. Let’s hope there is plenty for them to do on the trans Pennine routes.
There is also the argument that £7bn has already been spent, including homes already being bought up in Cheshire. But I suppose you don’t throw good money after bad.
There will be a big row if it is scrapped, or even scaled down as questions are asked about our commitment to major infrastructure spending. It will also reinforce the view that politicians can never be relied upon to see through projects that stretch beyond one election cycle.
We will also be left with the West Coast stretched to capacity and requiring another disruptive upgrade in the not too distant future.
On balance I think I would cancel on condition that northern transport investment is given a huge investment. No ifs or buts, Mr Johnson, you know the phrase.