The choice for Labour: Senseless megaprojects or jobs?

Writing in the Guardian, two Labour MPs try to make the case for the Trident nuclear submarine programme by arguing that abandoning it would do major damage to Britain’s manufacturing base, putting at risk more than 11,000 jobs. They estimate the cost of renewing Trident at up to £17bn.
By chance, this is the same cost as Phase 1 of another megaproject supported by Labour, HS2, though if we add together Phases 1 and 2 of HS2 (the ‘Y’ from London to Manchester and Leeds) the full cost is at least £34bn. The government estimates this will ‘create’ 100, 000 jobs (though in practice many of these will not be new but relocated near HS2 stations from elsewhere).
The second similarity between these two megaprojects is that neither serves a social function which is remotely a priority, especially in today’s austerity conditions. Trident’s independent nuclear deterrent confronts a non-existent external military threat. HS2 cuts a bit off journey times between a few major cities but does nothing to deal with the day to day transport needs of the mass of the population, and is likely to worsen, not reduce, north-south disparities.
The third similarity between HS2 and Trident is that there are better alternatives. Even the Labour MPS who support Trident recognise that it would be possible to save money by building greater numbers of smaller submarines and smaller weapons and warheads to go in them. In the case of HS2, improving the existing rail network would deal with current capacity problems much quicker and more cheaply.
So what about jobs? The final similarity between Trident and HS2 is that they are both ludicrously expensive in terms of job creation. If HS2 really were to create 100,000 jobs, as the government suggests, at a cost of £34bn, this amounts to £340,000 per job. Trident’s 11,000 jobs for £17bn come at an eye-watering £1.5m each! In comparison, a normal cost per job figure for employment created through regeneration projects would be £32,000. On this basis, HS2’s £34bn and Trident’s £17bn would together produce over 1.5m jobs in total.
So what does Labour want? It is easy to see why a Labour MP with the Barrow shipyard in his constituency would support Trident, just like Labour MPs and councillors in the (very few) cities which could benefit from HS2. But what about the rest of the party? Surely it is time to ditch both these white elephant megaprojects and spend the money saved in ways which are far more useful and would create far more jobs – in local transport, urban regeneration, energy infrastructure, affordable housing and green technologies?

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HS2 – transforming regional economies or a costly white elephant? The verdict of independent experts

HS2 would be the biggest and most costly infrastructure project ever undertaken in the UK. Will it really provide the huge economic benefits claimed, or is it destined to become our next ‘Concorde’ – technologically very sexy, but financially a disaster?

Proponents of HS2, most notably the Department of Transport and an alliance of some of our large cities, have the resources to pay economic researchers to provide the evidence they need to help ‘sell’ the scheme to the voter/taxpayer. Opponents and sceptics do not have access to these resources and therefore must rely upon the work of independent experts, some of whom support the Government’s arguments and some of whom do not (1).

1. Those saying HS2 will transform regional economies and the north-south divide

Hall and Chen (University College London) (2) studied the impact of high speed trains (HST) on Manchester and Lille and their sub-regions: –

“the connection with the national capital by faster train services did economically strengthen the regional capital, but not some sub-regions around it.”

Ahlfeldt and Feddersen, from the Department of Geography and Environment at LSE studied two stations on the line from Cologne to Frankfurt (3): –

‘It is quite clear that the line itself brought significant and lasting benefits in access to markets, growth, employment and individual prosperity. One of our key findings is a positive market access elasticity, which means that improvements in accessibility to other towns, cities and regions, will be reflected in economic growth’

2. Those who say HS2 is very unlikely to deliver the economic benefits claimed

Following a review of the international evidence, Professor John Tomaney of Newcastle University writes:

“…the impacts of high speed rail investments on local and regional development are ambiguous at best and negative at worst” (4).

The Economist (November 2010):

“….(the) economics (of HS2) are rather flaccid: every pound invested in high-speed rail is predicted to generate only around two pounds’ worth of benefit (measured in time savings, the extra journeys that will be facilitated, reduced congestion on roads and so on).”
It should be noted that since this was written the cost benefit ratio has been reduced by the DfT to £1.20 for every £1 spent.

New Economics Foundation (David Theiss) (5):

“Most importantly, it is unclear whether or not HS2 is the best bet for delivering onthe DfT’s ambitious and diverse goals. To properly assess HS2 we must take one step back and ask whether or not this scheme is the best investment possible. Given the bold objectives, austere economic and environmental context and sheer size of the impact on the public purse it is not enough that it passes a minimum threshold of return.”

Douglas McWilliams
Chief Executive, Centre for Economic and Business Research (6)

“…looking at the economics issues (underpinning HS2) dispassionately, the sums don’t add up.”

The Adam Smith Research Trust (7)

“(HS2 will) ..crowd out other much-needed railway investment. Phase 1 itself is very susceptible to two major risks– those relating to revenue, namely demand and average farebox yields, and to construction risk.”

“Moreover, the economic case, especially following the DfT’s recently reduced BCR projections, remains very weak and, if completed, Phase 1 may need substantial – and long-lasting – revenue funding from the
DfT to cover its operating losses.”

John Whitelegg of Stockholm Environment Institute, and visiting professor of sustainable transport at Liverpool John Moores University (8):

‘High-speed rail is a rich person’s folly and the government knows that spending public money on something that simply will not be used by the bottom 50% of income bands is a reverse Robin Hood strategy. It is a socially regressive project to transfer cash from poor to rich and to reward the rich with faster journeys to London’

3. The Verdict

The overwhelming majority of independent economists who have published research on High Speed Rail at the very least cast major doubts upon its value as an instrument for regenerating peripheral regions.

The limited amount of research supporting the proposition draws upon highly localised international case studies which bear limited comparison with the UK. The research by Hall and Chen refers to the existing Intercity network in England, while Ahlfeldt and Fedderson’s conclusions derive from a German line which has more stops, and slower speed than projected for HS2.

Most experts point to the fact that there are far more cost effective tools for economic regeneration, not least investment in local transport infrastructure. The concern is that it is this vital investment that the £35 billion required for HS2 will crowd out.

Catalysing economic growth in the Midlands and North currently remains the major underpinning argument for HS2. The independent evidence at the very least demonstrates ‘case not proven’. Can the UK afford to invest such a colossal sum based on such a leap of faith? As the respected transport expert Christian Wolmar says, this would be ‘one big punt’ (9).


1. Research by people like Volterra, KMPG., Greengauge 21 and others commissioned by the pro HS2 lobby are excluded from this summary as not being ‘independent’.

2. C-L Chen and P Hall (2012) The wider spatial-economic impacts of high-speed trains: a comparative case study of Manchester and Lille sub-regions. Journal of Transport Geography, 24, 89-110.

3. Gabriel Ahlfeld and Arne Feddersen, ‘From Periphery to Core: economic adjustments to high-speed rail’ German Economic Association 2010

4. Professor John Tomaney: The Local and Regional Impacts of High Speed Rail in the UK: A Review of the Evidence 2010

5. David Theiss High Speed 2: One track mind? Considering the alternatives to HS2
New Economics Foundation 2013

6.‘HS2 – A triumph of PR over economics’ CEBR 2011

7. Nigel Hawkins ‘High Speed Fail’, The Adam Smith Research Trust 2011

8. ‘HS2: an expensive, environmentally damaging waste of money’ – Guardian Professional 19 February 2013

9. The Guardian, Monday 28 January 2013

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Lies, damned lies….and HS2 jobs claims

Amid the barrage of claims about the allegedly ‘transformative’ numbers of jobs which HS2 would create in the regions, it is easy to overlook several ‘inconvenient facts’:

What does the government claim?

The government claims that HS2 would ‘help to support some 60,000 jobs in the cities of the Midlands and the North’(1). These figures show that, apart from work in construction and operation and maintenance of HS2, job creation will be exclusively
a) around the new stations, and
b) associated with property redevelopment and ‘regeneration’ next to the stations.

The point here is that the real driver behind these jobs is regeneration investment, as much or more than HS2 itself. This is also the case in places like Lille in France (2). And of course regeneration investment need not be concentrated on new stations in big cities, but could be dispersed more widely, to spread the benefits better. As it is, the investment nodes at the stations are liable to siphon off footloose inward investment from elsewhere in the area.

Where would the jobs be?

In the North West – to take one regional example (and leaving aside construction and maintenance) – HS2 Ltd predicts 29,700 ‘station-supported’ jobs at Manchester Piccadilly and 300 at Manchester airport. None anywhere else. Full stop. Anything beyond this is so intangible that government cannot come up with any figures at all.

So when HS2NorthWest say that the HS2 network ‘has the potential to help support the creation of’ (note all the caveats) ‘over 30,000 jobs in the region’(3), what they actually mean is jobs in Manchester.

What about other places?

So it is surprising to find that HS2 NorthWest claim that HS2 is ‘Not Just For Manchester’(4). But what this claim boils down to is that there will be rail connections, of one sort or another, between HS2 and other places in the region. Which will mean shorter journey times to London. So ‘the new line will give Crewe a huge boost’ and Preston will receive ‘a huge boost to the city’s attractiveness’. What this ignores is that ‘connectivity’ can pull in both directions. And, given the expert consensus that new rail lines in countries like the UK will create little new economic growth, the question is whether London or Crewe and Preston will be winners or losers from the enhanced connectivity. And here expert opinion is that the bigger, stronger pole (London) will be the winner (5).

A big city stitch up

So this is a big city stitch-up. The Crewes and Prestons may well experience not benefits, but a double whammy , as they lose out to both London and Manchester. The same goes for other towns in the North West, as well as those in Yorkshire which stand to lose out to Leeds and Sheffield.

And of course there are numerous further questions about HS2 and job creation. Government has not produced the evidence behind its jobs claims, so we do not know whether the predicted jobs would be full or part time, permanent or temporary, well or poorly paid. And while the number may seem quite large, we need to remember that any jobs created by HS2 will come at a cost of a minimum of £34bn and so are very poor value for money compared to many other job creation programmes(6).

6. A normal cost per job figure would be £25,000. If HS2 were to create 100,000 jobs, as the government suggests, at a cost of £34bn, this amounts to £340,000 per job!

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HS2: Maker of some cities but breaker of others?

The announcement of the proposed route of HS2 Phase 2 to Manchester and Leeds has reignited the arguments about whether HS2 would reduce the North-South divide in economic prosperity and dynamism.

Much has been made by supporters of HS2 (eg Greengauge 21) of the research of Peter Hall and Chia-lin Chen, encouraged by their assertion in a recent letter to the Guardian that HSR ‘definitively does’ help lagging regions. But when we look more closely at this claim, and the research behind it, all is not what it might seem.

In the first place, Hall and Chen themselves go on to qualify their initial bold assertion in several ways. They note that most of their evidence comes from a study of the 30-year-old Intercity 125 network (1). This is of course very different from HS2 – apart from slower speeds (‘low speed HSR’) the 125 network serves many more stations than HS2 would, and thus is likely to spread any positive economic effects more widely. And while they conclude that HSR can boost major cities, they admit that it does not necessarily help others, especially older industrial cities which are so important in the Midlands and North of England.

But there are also other reasons why we should be sceptical of Hall and Chen’s assertion that HSR definitively benefits lagging regions.

Some of these refer back to their research methodology. What they do is to compare economic trends in places on and off the Intercity 125 network, showing that, on the whole, places served by the Intercity network did better than those which were not. But it needs to be recognised that there is a huge step between noting this correlation, and claiming that HSR was a major causative factor in these urban economic trends. In a similar way, they appear to attribute the economic success of Lille in France to HSR (2), whereas it is very arguable that other transport and regeneration investment in Lille may well have been of greater importance than that the TGV. Moreover, it is not clear that Hall and Chen’s research effectively challenges the view that, in already well-connected countries like England, new transport links create little new economic growth but merely redistribute economic activity. Finally, they produce no evidence on the impact of the 125 network on London itself, and thus have nothing to say on the key issue of whether HSR widens rather than reduces regional disparities between the capital city and the provinces, as other research suggests (3).

So what is left of Hall and Chen’s assertion? Evidence that some provincial cities (those with stations) might get a boost from HS2 is hardly new, and as the current route proposals envisage very few stations, this merely tends to confirm that regional economic benefits – if any- are likely to be focussed around Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and the Nottingham-Derby axis. But such benefits are not likely to be large – even the government’s estimates of new jobs from Phase 2 of HS2 are modest, as opposed to their lofty but unsupported rhetoric of “transformational change”. And, as Hall and Chen themselves admit, the extent to which economic benefits fan out beyond these regional core cities to surrounding areas depends not on HS2 but on high levels of co-ordinated government planning and investment in subregional and local transport links, skills and other economic and social infrastructure. They seem willing to give government the benefit of the doubt, and support HS2 with the proviso that this investment will need to be forthcoming in addition to, and is not displaced by, HS2. In the context of austerity, public expenditure cuts and the recent abolition by the government of the institutional infrastructure for regional development, this seems a very risky punt. Indeed, developments around HS2 stations may suck economic activity away from less favoured locations. In any case, as other commentators have argued, there may well be more cost-effective and quicker ways of upgrading the national transport network and regenerating regional economies than HS2 (4).

In the meantime, the most appropriate summary of the position may be a phrase which Hall and Chen themselves quote: that HSR is ‘the maker of some cities but the breaker of others’. In the case of HS2 Hall and Chen offer little to dispute the proposition that HS2 would continue to buttress the position of the London city-region, and while it might contribute a boost to a few provincial cities, it threatens to undermine many others.

1 C-L Chen and P Hall (2011) The impacts of high-speed trains on British economic geography: a study of the UK’s InterCity 125/225 and its effect. Journal of Transport Geography 19, 689-704.
2. C-L Chen and P Hall (2012) The wider spatial-economic impacts of high-speed trains: a comparative case study of Manchester and Lille sub-regions. Journal of Transport Geography, 24, 89-110.
2 Eg Albalate and Bell (2010) High speed rail: Lessons for policy-makers from abroad. Working Paper 2012/3, Research Institute of Applied Economics, University of Barcelona.
4 Stokes C (2011) Optimised Alternative to HS2 – The Scope for Growth on the Existing Network. Buckinghamshire County Council for 51M.

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Calm down dears: Will HS2 rebalance Britain?

The release of proposals for the route of Phase 2 of HS2 north to Manchester and Leeds has fuelled a feverish flood of stories about how HS2 will regenerate the North and ‘rebalance Britain’.

To take just one example: the Daily Mirror announced on 26th January that HS2 will create 250,000 jobs and then on 28th reported four trade unions claiming that it will create 400,000 jobs and help tackle the north-south divide. Other similar claims are flying around. David Cameron says that HS2 ‘will really help to create a better balanced economy’, while Nick Clegg ‘predicts’ that HS2 will ‘heal’ the north-south divide.

But when we dig a little deeper, the government is actually much more cautious. In its policy paper on HS2 Phase 2, it claims only that the new ‘Y’ route to Manchester and Leeds will ‘help to support’ around 50,000 jobs around the proposed new stations in the Midlands and North (excluding construction jobs). This is hardly transformational change, as this relatively limited number of jobs would only be created over a period of decades following the proposed opening of the Y route in 20 years time. Moreover, many of these jobs are likely to be transfers from other locations in the North and Midlands, not genuinely new jobs. Gains for the few cities with stations may well therefore be losses for other places.

Moreover, the evidence from other countries is that capital cities are often the major gainers from new transport links. If this is the case, HS2 may well widen the north-south divide, not ‘heal’ it.

The message to the more fervent proponents of HS2 has to be ‘calm down dears’. Look at the evidence. Look at what government is actually saying, and the wider evidence from abroad. Let’s have more reality and less rhetoric.

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French lessons? Is HS2 a cost effective tool for regional regeneration?

Ian Waddell
Public Transport and Regeneration Consultant

Nearly 30 years ago France became the first European country to invest in a high speed rail network – the TGV. HS2 is, at £33bn, the largest single infrastructure investment in the UK’s history. It is therefore very appropriate to objectively examine the French experience in order to draw lessons about HS2.

Our Government’s case in favour of HS2 includes claims that it will hugely reduce regional disparities within the UK, and they make frequent references to the regenerative impact which the TGV has apparently had on Lille and Lyon.

When considering Lille it is firstly crucial to remember that it is located at the cross roads of the European high speed rail network. It therefore benefits from high levels of accessibility and frequency of service.

Leading transport expert Roger Vickerman of Kent University observes:
“…. the biggest gains in accessibility accrue to the major access points to the network. These are first, the major metropolitan areas such as London or Paris, and secondly major interchange points, such as Lille or Lyon.”

Lille has certainly seen a significant growth in jobs particularly as a result of the large EuroLille development. But has this had any significant impact in terms of reducing the persistently high levels of poverty and unemployment in the Lille conurbation, Nord Department and region? The evidence (from the French National Institute of Statistics – INSEE) shows that it has not:

• Between 1999 and 2009 the rate of unemployment in the Lille conurbation has actually increased relative to the rest of France
• The same applies to the Nord Department and the Nord Pas de Calais Region within which Lille is located. Unemployment in the Nord region, for example, has increased since the arrival of the TGV in the early 1980s (from an average of 10.7% 1982-6 to 11.9% 2006-10), resulting in a further widening of disparities when compared to the rest of France.

Turning to the case of Lyon, this is an area which has traditionally been amongst the more prosperous parts of France. It has not suffered the depredations of the decline of traditional industries on anything like the same scale as the North East of France.

Nevertheless, if claims for the wider regenerative benefits of the TGV are to be believed, some further decline in absolute and relative levels of unemployment might be expected within the Rhone Department, over 75% of the population of which live within the Lyon area.

In fact the reverse is true: unemployment in the Rhone department has increased by nearly 1.5% since the arrival of the TGV (from an average of 6.3% 1982-6 to 7.8% 2006-10). It has also increased in relative terms compared to France as a whole by 1.24%.

The picture for the region of Rhone Alps within which Lyon is located is similar: its prosperity relative to the rest of France measured in terms of unemployment rates has actually declined since the arrival of the TGV in the early 1980s.

In summary it seems clear from the French experience and using our Government’s own examples, that high speed rail has had virtually no impact whatsoever in reducing regional and departmental unemployment disparities. The only ‘benefits’ have been limited numbers of additional jobs at key nodal locations.

Putting this in the context of HS2, whereas London might be considered a ‘node’ in European terms, places like Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester are not. This is even more so for cities like Coventry, Leicester, Bristol, Cardiff, Southampton and so on. If the French experience is valid, all these places seriously risk losing more jobs and investment than they may gain.

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HS2 – Questions from all parts of the country

The questions about HS2 keep coming, from all parts of the country.
From the south of England, the chairman of Gatwick Airport, Sir David Rowlands, recently dismissed as ‘total nonsense’ the government’s claim that HS2 eliminates the need for a third runway at Heathrow. Sir David, the former chairman of the high speed project, is quoted as saying that ”a link to Heathrow does little for the high speed network, and the network doesn’t do much either for Heathrow”.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the country, Network Rail’s newly-appointed chief executive has been explicit about what the top rail investment priority is for the North. It isn’t HS2, but rather the ‘Northern Hub’ proposals to improve connections between Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Bradford. These improvements, he considers, are far more significant for the economic prosperity of the North than HS2. At the same time, there are claims that improvements to the East Coast main line to Newcastle can deliver similar journey times to HS2.
From Wales, the Cardiff Business Partnership argues for something similar to the Northern Hub. For them, the crucial rail investment for South Wales is improving the infrastructure within the region and connection to the electrified Great Western main line.
Even more damaging for HS2 are the results of an opinion poll undertaken by the Birmingham Post. Unsurprisingly, the results show that in Birmingham itself, the numbers are in favour of HS2. However, nearly everywhere else in the surrounding region, opinion runs strongly against the proposal. The newspaper comments that the case for HS2 appears to have run out of steam, and the economic benefits appear inflated.
These views show that opposition to HS2 is not confined to those living along the route. Moreover, the revised case presented by government at the opening of the public consultation seems to have done nothing to allay widespread concerns.

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HS2 -The North versus the NIMBYs?

The Secretary of State for Transport is fond of casting the debate about HS2 in terms of the reactionary NIMBYs along the route versus the progressive citizens (especially business people) in the North who can see how high speed rail will benefit the country.

But where do criticisms of HS2 actually come from?
What is increasingly evident is the broad spread of opinion critical of HS2. This ranges from the Taxpayers Alliance, worried about the cost to the taxpayer, and the Adam Smith Institute, concerned about the economics of HSR, to the Smith Institute, voicing fears that HS2 is not the main priority for the North in terms of transport infrastructure. Further reputable institutions are now joining in. The Sustainable Development Commission, in its new report, Fairness in a Car Dependent Society, says that ‘high speed rail could divert funds away from investment in local rail services’, repeats concerns that HS2 could further imbalance the economy towards London, and criticises the fact that it will primarily be used by those on high incomes.

And now even the Americans are joining in. Wendell Cox, from the St Louis public policy consultancy Demographia, in an article entitled The High Speed Battle of Britain, notes the common tendency for infrastructure projects to cost far more than budgeted and for revenues to fail to match forecasts, as has been the case with HS1.

Much more than NIMBYs
What is so noticeable is the diversity of these institutions. The Adam Smith Institute is identified with the political right, as one imagines are many supporters of the Taxpayers Alliance. This is in sharp contrast to the politics of the Smith Institute report and the ideas one would associate with the Sustainable Development Commission. Wendell Cox from the USA is concerned about the costs of high speed rail to those on middle incomes. It is impossible to cast such a broadly-based group of commentators as NIMBYS. So why does Philip Hammond continue to do so? Does he have no better arguments?

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Is HS2 a fair deal for the North?

A recent report by the Smith Institute with PwC and Newcastle University questions whether HS2 is a priority for the North of England.

The report confirms the serious and long-term nature of the North-South divide, and says it is likely to widen. Controversially for the government, this is in large part due to an analysis of the regional consequences of the recent Spending Review, conducted by Price Waterhouse Cooper. This suggests that the North will suffer disproportionately from public spending cuts and job losses, and questions whether the private sector will be able to plug the gap. It concludes that there are neither robust institutional arrangements or sufficient resources being devoted to closing the North-South gap.

If this is correct, it is easy to see why the government is keen to present HS2 as a way of bridging the North-South divide.

However the Smith Institute questions whether HS2 is what the North needs. It asks ‘whether the HS2 investment programme is really the right one?’. It concludes that ‘what is really needed is an integrated transport plan for the North’ in which access to London is only one of several criteria to be considered.
The report, Rebalancing the Economy: Prospects for the North, is the outcome of a ‘fair deal for the North’ enquiry involving 150 key public and private stakeholders.

The government has made it clear that it expects voices from the North to be strongly supportive of HS2. Does this report indicate that this is far from certain?

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Will HS2 actually widen the North-South divide?

The information which the government has produced for the public consultation on HS2 provides new evidence on its impact on the North-South divide.

Philip Hammond is still adamant that high speed rail will reshape our economic geography, regenerate our urban centres and help bridge the north-south divide. He claims ‘the first phase (London to Birmingham) alone would support the creation of more than 40,000 jobs’.

When we look at the detail, this is made up as follows:
• 9000 construction (ie temporary) jobs
• 1500 operational jobs of which 340 are in London and 420 in Birmingham
• 30,300 from regeneration around the stations, of which 22,000 in London (Euston and Old Oak Common), and 8,300 in Birmingham (Curzon St and Birmingham Interchange).
So 70% of the ‘permanent’ jobs will be in London. Moreover, as the government admits, many of these will not actually be new jobs, but relocations from elsewhere.

What does this tell us about the impact on the north-south divide?

In the first place, the impact is very marginal indeed. Recent data from Cambridge Econometrics suggests that the north-south divide is currently widening by about 77,000 jobs a year, while the projected new jobs from HS2 are spread over a 12-15 year period. So even if they were all in the Midlands or North, their impact on the divide would be minimal. But of course they are mostly in London, so the impact will actually serve to widen the divide.

Of course, the government might argue that the major impact on regional disparities will only come when the line is extended further north to Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle. Even then there is absolutely no guarantee that many of any possible further new jobs will not be in London and the South East. In any case, the likely numbers could still be so small that even if they were mostly in the north the impact on the divide would be hardly noticeable.

So what are we to make of the large claims which government continues to make for HS2?

If the Secretary of State really believes them, we surely need to see some hard evidence very quickly. Or, if such claims are as misleading as they seem, are they no more than an attempted sleight of hand to persuade decision makers in the North that HS2 offers them something worth their while?

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