What folly to spend tens of billions on HS2 when even rail chiefs WFH

DOMINIC LAWSON: When even rail chiefs are working from home, what folly to spend tens of billions on HS2

Well, this is embarrassing. While telling the country in February that ‘encouraging businesses and commuters to take the train will boost the economy, helping to get the country back on track’, the Rail Delivery Group is simultaneously informing its own staff: ‘All we ask is that you do a minimum of two days a week in the office, the rest of your time can be working from home.’

And that is what the chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group — which helps manage the National Rail Enquiries website and ticketing — is doing. Jacqueline Starr, in charge of the RDG since November 2020, has admitted that most weeks she commutes into its London HQ on just two days, working the rest of the time from her home in Somerset.

Whether you approve, disapprove or are indifferent, the big move towards working from home (WFH) is a permanent feature, long outlasting the period when it was compelled by the Government as part of the response to the pandemic.

I can see this with my own eyes. Before Covid, the car park at the railway station I use to get into London, about 50 miles away, was always jam-packed. So much so that a farmer who has land immediately next to the station set up an overflow car park and that, also, was always packed solid on weekdays.

A concrete pier construction at the HS2/Align Compound in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, where segments are constructed for the UK’s longest railway bridge on the HS2 high-speed railway’s Colne Valley Viaduct on the north-west outskirts of London, February 9, 2022 

Impact

His nice little earner has been sabotaged. Even now, when all Covid restrictions have long ago been abandoned, the main station car park has loads of spare spaces even when I turn up, well after the commuter trains have departed.

This dawning realisation may lie behind the fact that the recent strike ballots called by the eternally militant RMT union were significantly smaller in turnout than those held in previous years: the one conducted by employees at the biggest operator, GTR, didn’t meet the necessary threshold for strike action.

As someone who has been involved in the negotiations observed: ‘Staff on commuter networks are clearly smelling the coffee. They recognise that it will be more difficult to make an impact when half the commuter market aren’t coming in anyway and most of the rest can probably work from home.’

But is the Government smelling the coffee? In particular, does it see the implications for the HS2 project? This is the high-speed north-south rail line, due to become fully operational in the early 2030s and which had seen its projected cost balloon to more than £100 billion before the Government attempted to reduce the overheads by cutting out the link from Birmingham to Leeds.

Given that the tickets on this superfast line were always going to be much more expensive than those on the existing trains, it was clear they would be of interest only for essential work-related journeys, in many cases paid for by employers. So the seismic shift to WFH must have colossal implications for the business model of HS2.

Not, apparently, in the view of the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps. Last summer he dismissed all suggestions that the project should be re-examined in light of the changes to working practices.

Last summer Transport Secretary Grant Shapps dismissed all suggestions that the HS2 project should be re-examined in light of the changes to working practices

He told the Commons Transport Committee that ‘the Spanish flu’ had not deterred investment in new rail infrastructure 100 years ago, and this was the right approach. The fact that the internet did not exist in 1919 seems not to have deterred Mr Shapps from drawing such an obtuse equivalence.

The business model for HS2, with its claimed economic and social benefits, was always — to quote the former chairman of Eurostar, Adam Mills, ‘away with the fairies . . . I love high-speed trains. But in economic terms, HS2 is unjustifiable’. And he said that long before the budget had doubled from its original estimate.

Originally, the project was promoted on the grounds that it would save business people loads of time (as it would cut the journey from London to Birmingham from 81 minutes to 45, and from London to Manchester from 125 minutes to 67).

This ignored the fact that, thanks to the internet and mobile phones, business people on trains can use the time they spend travelling most productively. It is not wasted time at all.

So the Government abandoned this argument. The Conservative Transport Secretary in 2013, Patrick McLoughlin, blurted that it had been ‘wrong’ to justify the scheme on the grounds that it would save business people time.

Threat

No, he said: the case ‘should always have been about capacity . . . unless we take action, by the 2020s the West Coast main line will be full’.

But it isn’t. And after McLoughlin said that, opponents of HS2 applied under the Freedom of Information Act for the Transport Department’s own figures for seat use on the line.

The department refused.

It was only the threat of High Court action that got them to reveal that on long-distance trains leaving the HS2 start-point of London Euston, during the peak early evening hours only 52.5 per cent of the seats were occupied on average.

No, this was always a political project, and it especially appealed to Boris Johnson, in part because he could link it to the ‘levelling up’ agenda, and in part . . . well, the PM has always had a peculiar fascination with what the French call ‘grands projets’. He even tried to push through a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland, before some semblance of sanity intervened.

Jacqueline Starr, in charge of the RDG since November 2020, has admitted that most weeks she commutes into its London HQ on just two days, working the rest of the time from home

When HS2 was first put forward, by the last Labour government, it was thought that the private sector might provide funding. But, as might have been predicted, only the taxpayers — who have no say about how our money is spent — are on the hook for this.

Would it not be a refreshing change from the Government’s current strategy of raising taxes as the unfailing answer to the increasing demands for funding — for example, in shielding the public from the full effect of rising energy bills — if it were instead to see what might be cut from the existing budget? And to look again at that most bloated of white elephants, HS2?

A fortnight ago, answering questions from the Commons Public Accounts Select Committee, HS2’s chief executive Mark Thurston said that £17.4 billon of the total budget had already been spent. So if the project were to be abandoned, its defenders would wail that this was almost £20 billion down the drain.

Troubling

Yet there is much more than that which would be saved by stopping now, amounting to the equivalent of thousands of pounds for every household in the country.

And not just money: according to the Wildlife Trusts, the construction of the line risks the loss of, or great damage to: five wildlife refuges, 33 sites of special scientific interest, 693 classified local wildlife sites and 21 designated local nature reserves.

And for those more concerned with property values, there is the great loss to those whose homes lie very near the line, as the law allows for compensation only to people whose properties are within 60 metres of the track.

Last week, fending off the complaints of uncompensated home owners, an HS2 spokesman told the Bucks Herald: ‘The construction of HS2 is playing a vital role in Britain’s economic recovery from the pandemic, with almost 25,000 people already working on the project.’

The Conservative Transport Secretary in 2013, Patrick McLoughlin, blurted that it had been ‘wrong’ to justify the scheme on the grounds that it would save business people time

Such arguments based on ‘job creation’ are always the last desperate defence of a dud project. They are especially unpersuasive now, when the Office for National Statistics has just announced that, for the first time since such records began, there are ‘fewer unemployed people than job vacancies’.

The private sector would be only too willing to provide work for those 25,000 — and, by definition, at no cost to the taxpayer. As the Institute of Economic Affairs recently pointed out: ‘It is troubling that ministers continue to justify HS2 in respect of jobs created, while ignoring the jobs which will be destroyed by the increased borrowings and taxes required to pay for it.’

Alas, the mad HS2 project has too much value in units of political vanity to be stopped now. 

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