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HS2 economic arguments may not stack up, but that’s beside the point

The high speed railway line is going to be built – and once it’s there, we’ll use it

Do the numbers stack up for high speed rail? The economic case for HS2 has been the subject of much debate, not least since its opponents in the Chilterns realised their local objections would only see them characterised as nimbys. So they seized on the numbers, and there have been some pretty authoritative figures trashing the government case ever since.

But, as my colleague Polly Curtis has found today with her excellent Reality Check, the strict economic arguments are all built on far from solid ground, with vague assumptions about the value of time spent on trains, road decongestion and network reliability. The review of the figures commissioned by opponents from independent rail consultants concluded that the benefit cost ratio on the £33bn investment would be not the optimistic 1.8-2.5 to one that the Department for Transport still affirms today but an altogether more grim 50p back for every pound spent.

As the consultants noted crisply, alternatives to high speed rail “do not involve committing some £18bn now to construct a new line that will not be available for use until 2025 on the strength of some very uncertain demand forecasts, to achieve benefits from faster rail journey times that have dubious economic value, most of which will not materialise for 30 or 40 years into the future”. Ouch.

Today, the government noted in passing with a shrug that their benefit to costs ratio has already been downgraded slightly. The reaction of Lord Adonis, champion of the choo-choo and the original proponent of the scheme when in office, is instructive. He says that the figures are entirely notional. Do we want to build it or not, he asks? He believes it’s a no-brainer that it will have important benefits for the Midlands and north, even if that means turning Birmingham into slightly less idyllic Chiltern-esque commuter belt for the century ahead.

For the likes of David Begg, a prominent supporter in transport circles, faster connections can only bring benefits. He says economists are divided over which end of the line will gain the most, London or the north, but he suspects the north will be the bigger winner (and it’s win-win).

Perhaps the most compelling arguments are away from the economic phoney war that the government is fighting with the non-nimbys. The line is going to be built, with public money (though Justine Greening would take private cash if it were offered). So should we spend it? Ultimately, it seems a decision like buying a nice fast car. You might well not need it. You could certainly better spend the money on a host of other things. But once you’ve bought it, you probably won’t be going back to trundling up to Birmingham by coach. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds