The government’s planned HS2 high-speed rail project will make the UK even more divided and should be scrapped in favour of boosting services in the less well-off parts of the country, a left-leaning thinktank has said.
A report from the New Economics Foundation found that 40% of the benefits of the controversial project would go to London and that the £56bn budget would be better spent on upgrading the existing network and smaller-scale local projects.
Theresa May has said she remains fully committed to HS2 despite speculation that rising costs will result in the government cancelling the scheme or restricting the route to between London and Birmingham. Estimates for building the line have increased by two-thirds since 2011 after taking account of inflation, from £33.3bn to £55.8bn.
The rail industry strongly supports HS2 but the NEF report said that even if the project eventually extends to Yorkshire and the north-west, London would be the biggest beneficiary. Despite accounting for just under 25% of the UK’s economy, two-fifths of the passenger benefits – such as shorter journey times – would go to the capital. Richer households would be the main users of the new high speed route, the report added.
Andrew Pendleton, the director of policy at the NEF and one of the report’s authors, said: “Investment in the UK’s railways is urgently needed, but HS2 is trickle-down transport policy. It will be used by the wealthiest travellers, intensify the north-south investment divide and is a standalone project that simply does not integrate well enough into the existing network. It’s an expensive answer in search of a question.
The NEF report said an alternative to HS2 should be a new national rail investment fund that would pump money into the existing network and redress the four-to-one regional imbalance in transport spending between the south and north of England.
The thinktank said a package of £55.2bn spent over the next 10 years, including £18.9bn for the north of England, would help commuters, speed up long distance journeys, cut carbon emissions and bring benefits to many regions that will not be served by HS2. It also called on the government to bring forward a comprehensive strategy for the railways that prioritised improving journeys for the majority, the creation of good, unionised jobs and carrying more freight.
Rather than spend more than £50bn on HS2, the report said ministers should consider alternative uses of the money including:
Full electrification of much of the northern rail network.
The reopening of the trans-Pennine Woodhead line between Manchester and Sheffield to provide a fourth east-west link in the north.
A Bradford Crossrail, to link the two lines that terminate in the city and put it at the centre of northern rail.
The full electrification of the Midland and Great Western lines.
The creation of more four track sections on the three core, north-south mainlines and of bridges to take slower, regional lines over intercity tracks to speed up long distance journeys.
The NEF report was commissioned by the environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which has opposed HS2. Mike Childs, its head of science, policy and research, said: “Transport is the UK’s biggest source of climate wrecking emissions. In order to deal with the climate crisis we know that we have to encourage people out of their cars, but right now cycling across much of England is unsafe, bus routes are being cut, and far too many trains are overcrowded, late and ridiculously expensive.
“White elephants like HS2 aren’t the answer. It will take over a decade to build, destroy ancient woodlands, and only 4% of those projected to use HS2 would otherwise have driven.”