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Putting the cost of the HS2 link into perspective...

I've just booked a Christmas ride for the kids aboard the Santa Special at our local steam railway. It's become something of a December tradition, even though the oldest daughter is fully up to speed with the realities of seasonal giving. It's not easy to comfort a twelve year old who's crying her eyes out having been told by one of her 'friends' that not only is there no Father Christmas, but neither is there a tooth fairy or an Easter bunny. Happily, the thrill of steam will help to compensate; no matter how quickly they grow, they never fall out of love with trains. And I can understand that because I love trains too; the modern electric behemoths may not deliver the same romance as the steam goliaths of old, but it's still a thoroughly pleasant way to travel - rush hour excepted of course.

It's just as well that I am a train fan, because I seem to spend half my life travelling to and from the NEC in Birmingham to one event or another. Book far enough in advance, and you can do the trip for far less than the cost of the petrol to drive it, with the added bonus that I can do some work, read a book or just catch up on some much needed sleep. I do question, though, whether I'd have the slightest interest in paying the premium to do the London to Birmingham journey 20 minutes quicker via HS2, the new high speed link. The estimated £40bn construction cost seems an awful lot to pay for such a marginal gain, and you can bet the final cost is almost guaranteed be considerably higher. When you think that India has sent a mission to Mars for around £40m, the cost per mile of HS2 starts to look very expensive indeed.

The proponents say we need it for the extra capacity, the extra jobs and the additional boost to the economy that a high speed link between London and Birmingham will bring. But I can't say I've ever experienced difficulty getting a seat travelling in and out of London Euston on the current Birmingham service, and there are numerous infrastructure projects that would create jobs - and would potentially be of more value to the economy. The same money could be used to build three nuclear power stations, instead of jobbing out our energy security to a French/Chinese partnership. The 2012 London Olympics cost a whisker under £9bn to stage, yet - as you'll see on page 6 of this very issue - have already led to contracts worth £11bn to UK companies working on the Rio World Cup and Olympics projects. If the UK could fund four similarly sized infrastructure projects and recoup the cost in less than a year, with the likelihood of ongoing gains, that would surely be more attractive than HS2 from a financial perspective.

Depending on how you read the various reports, HS1 was either delivered on time and on budget or a year late and significantly over budget. Its viability was based on passenger volumes that we now see were totally unrealistic. And it's either a long way from making a return on its investment, or it has generated some £10bn for UK businesses. Personally, I'm highly sceptical. So, is £40bn on HS2 money well spent, or are we putting too many eggs in a single basket? As my daughter now knows only too well, when it comes to eggs, there is no Easter bunny out there in the real world.

Mark Simms, 27 November 2013

 
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