BORIS JOHNSON: Cancel HS2? Cut off the northern leg? We must be out of our minds. The world is watching and we need to show we still have guts and ambition
In the universities of Beijing, they teach a course in political science in which they dwell — as you might expect — on the disadvantages of democracy.
To prove to their avid communist students that democratically elected politicians are chronically unable to take decisions that are in the interests of the whole nation, the Chinese politics professors have a text from the UK. It is a story, they say, that tells you all you need to know about political weakness, about chopping and changing, and craven short-term decision making.
Yup — their theme is HS2, where the contrast with Chinese high-speed rail is already embarrassing, if not frankly humiliating.
How many miles of high-speed line have the Chinese built since 2008, when their programme began? The answer is 25,000 miles — and having travelled on some of these Chinese trains, I can tell you that they are astonishingly fast and efficient.
And how many miles of high-speed line have we built, here in Britain, the home of the railways? In almost exactly the same period — HS2 was started in 2009 — we have built, er, zero miles of track, and we have served zero passengers.
Let me say that again: in the period since both the UK and China launched new programmes of high-speed rail, the Chinese have built 25,000 miles of high-speed railway line, and we have built zero miles of completed line.
And how much have Chinese high-speed lines cost, per mile, compared to HS2? I fear the comparison would be almost too painful to describe.
How many miles of high-speed line have the Chinese built since 2008, when their programme began? The answer is 25,000 miles — and having travelled on some of these Chinese trains (pictured), I can tell you that they are astonishingly fast and efficient, writes BORIS JOHNSON
And how many miles of high-speed line have we built, here in Britain, the home of the railways? In almost exactly the same period — HS2 was started in 2009 — we have built, er, zero miles of track, and we have served zero passengers
As an example of how democratic decision-making leads to vacillation, delay, confusion and spiralling expense, our national flagship high-speed line has been a subject of ridicule on the Beijing syllabus even before the latest spasm of uncertainty.
So when I heard that the government was yet again proposing to truncate this scheme — with the deluded aim of ‘saving money’ — I won’t say that I howled with frustration. It was more of a groan, a long, low despairing groan — the kind you might make on the concourse at Euston, on seeing that your overcrowded service has been cancelled yet again — a groan of suppressed fury at the repetitious madness of it all.
Cancel HS2? Cut off the northern legs? We must be out of our minds. Let us get one thing clear: it is now physically impossible just to cancel the entire project, and hope that we could all quietly forget about it. HS2 is already a huge streak of construction running from London to Birmingham, with thousands of people in hard hats, and endless beeping diggers and excavators. They have dug colossal tunnels, and built bridges, and rerouted roads. You can see HS2 from space. You can’t stop now — and you can’t stop at Birmingham. If the rumours are right — and I pray they are not — the government is again debating the notion of delaying the legs to Manchester and the East Midlands, so that we are left with a massive new railway, with trains capable of running at 225 mph, from Birmingham to . . . wait for it, Old Oak Common.
Have you been to Old Oak Common? I have, and it is nowhere near the city centre. You would have to get off and schlep into town, adding about half an hour to your journey. If this really is the plan, then we are going to throw away the chance to regenerate the Euston site — an economic boost worth £50 billion for a cost of £8 billion. If this is really the plan, then we are going to end up with the crowning absurdity of spending £100 billion, or more, on a line from Birmingham to the outskirts of London that will actually be slower than the existing service. It would be a total white elephant, the vanity project to end all vanity projects; but that is not the worst thing about this proposal.
If we delay or cut the northern legs, if we truncate HS2 — then we are betraying the north of the country and the whole agenda of levelling up. This is the most imbalanced major economy in the world, in the sense that there is a huge productivity gap between London and the South-East, and some parts of the Midlands, the North and the South-West. There are all sorts of reasons for that gap, many things that need to be fixed — skills, culture, ambition, local leadership.
But we will not level up, and we will not unleash the full potential of this entire country, unless we end the injustice of the infrastructure gap — and give the cities of the North the same transport advantages that have helped turn London and the South-East into one of the most productive regions in the whole of Europe.
That’s why we need Northern Powerhouse rail — the trans-Pennine links that are now being built — but Northern Powerhouse Rail only makes sense with the northern leg of HS2. Yes of course we need to grip the costs of HS2, and it is a great shame that there has been no dedicated HS2 minister to replace the excellent Andrew Stephenson — whose post was abolished in the summer of last year. And instead of just holding out the begging bowl, Andy Burnham and the other mayors should look at what we did in London to finance Crossrail and the Northern Line extensions.
Birmingham has already seen stunning investment on the back of HS2 — just look at the cranes. It is estimated that the GDP of Greater Manchester will double if we build the leg, and Manchester airport will benefit massively. Planning applications in Crewe are up fourfold.
Isn’t it time to corral the businesses, as we did in London, and get them to contribute? Never forget that around a third of the Elizabeth Line/Crossrail financing came from private-sector contributions, and the Northern Line extension to Battersea was financed on the strength of the extra taxes that we knew would flow from the tens of thousands of homes and offices that were enabled by the line itself (indeed, those revenues have now already covered the Treasury’s costs).
Isambard Kingdom Brunel went way over-budget when he built the Great Western Railway . Did that stop the Victorians? Of course not — and thank heavens for that.
The same principle could be applied in Manchester, where it is estimated that the northern leg would unleash growth worth £100 billion. We simply cannot afford to abandon this vision now — to panic, and throw up our hands, and say it is all too difficult. All great infrastructure projects go through this moment of doubt and pain. I vividly remember when Crossrail was on the Treasury chopping block — and look at it now, and the benefits it brings.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel went way over-budget when he built the Great Western Railway — more than four times over. Did that stop the Victorians? Of course not — and thank heavens for that.
This is a pivotal moment, a time when we need to show, as a country, that we still have the requisite guts and ambition. I can tell you that across the world there are investors with trillions watching and waiting to see whether they would be right to invest in the talent and genius of these great northern cities. The right transport connections are a vital part of their calculations. They need certainty, and they need it now. Let’s cut the cackle and get on with it.
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