The United Kingdom will press ahead with a costly high-speed railway, Boris Johnson confirmed on Tuesday, despite its cost continuing to spiral apparently beyond control, serious doubts about the value of the project, and already massive government debt.
Speaking in a statement to the House of Commons on Tuesday afternoon, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson noted he had taken the “difficult and controversial” decision to press ahead with the project to build another railway heading north from London, a move proponents say will shave time off the journey to a host of English and Scottish cities while growing overall capacity on the network.
The longstanding 140-mile project — which has already cost the taxpayer nearly £8 billion despite zero miles and chains of track having been laid to date — had attracted enormous controversy, not least from those communities slated to be bulldozed to make way for the lines.
One of the key objections to the project has been the way its cost has soared, and continues to rise. Projected at £32 billion in 2011 when the build was first launched by the Cameron-Osborne government, it has since more than trebled to at least £106 billion, and there is no indication that as things presently stand, it won’t continue to rise.
Even at the original build cost, critics questioned whether the pay-off would be worth the huge investment. While the government has promoted the project as a way to spread prosperity out of London into the rest of the country, reviews of the project have claimed the main beneficiaries would actually be those already in London, not the other way around. These critics and others say the money would be better used to improve local transport and smaller railways in the north, rather than in a country-spanning vanity project.
In the meanwhile, giveaways to coax the paying public into backing the project — like rebuilding the much mourned Euston Arch as part of the central London terminus for the new line — have been quietly dropped.
Mr Johnson attempted to answer this Tuesday when he joined critics of the way the project has been managed so far, vowing to reign in costs. The Prime Minister said:
When it comes to advocating HS2, it must be said that the task is not made easier by HS2 Ltd, the company concerned. Speaking as a member of parliament whose constituency is on the route, I cannot say HS2 Ltd has distinguished itself in the handling of local communities.
As everybody knows, the forecasted costs have exploded. But poor management to date has not detracted — in my view — from the fundamental value of the project.
Singing the praises of the railway, Mr Johnson countered that building a whole new line would bring a “vast increase” in overall capacity and faster travel times. He claimed: “Passengers arriving at Birmingham airport will be able to get to central London by train in 38 minutes. Which compares favourably… with the time it takes to get to Heathrow [London’s main airport] by taxi… and considerably faster than by [the London Underground].”
Why do we have a crisis in railway capacity anyway? Government interference in our network has been an unmitigated disaster since 1914 https://t.co/tfedk1w7xo
— Oliver JJ Lane (@oliver_lane) February 11, 2020
While Mr Johnson heavily hinted he would be proceeding with HS2 with the provision of a cost review in the future in 2019, he deliberately went into the December general election not having declared either way — presumably understanding the deeply controversial project could distract from the otherwise simple election campaign on Brexit.
As well as the £100+ billion north-south rail, the government yesterday announced it was looking into a bridge to link Great Britain with the Island of Ireland, cementing the link between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK it is an equal member of. Even conservative estimates put the cost of the project at £20 billion or more.
After decades of heaping more borrowing onto government debt, the UK finally engaged in a programme of running down the budget deficit in the 2010s, coming within two per cent of acheiving a small annual surplus by 2019. At this point, the government would have no longer been creating even more debt, but would have started down the long road of paying back the £1,821.3 billion it owes its creditors — equivalent to 85.2 per cent of gross domestic product.
Rather than doing that, the governing Conservative Party — now led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson — declared the policy of austerity which had cut the deficit to almost nothing was “over” in 2019 and engaged in a historic election campaign spending spree, promising big boosts to health, education, and other spending as well as infrastructure spending.
While the government is preparing to spend huge volumes of taxpayers’ money on building a new railway, with construction set to begin in just weeks time, it is ironically because of an earlier generation of government interference in the railway network that the country is in need of it at all. While Britain’s railway network was almost entirely built by private initiative and with private capital in the 19th century, the government progressively extended its power over the companies that controlled them in the early 20th century, eventually fully nationalising the railways in 1947.
Subsequent governments then decided to back road travel and motorways over the railways it had seized from private ownership, starving the network of money and investment over successive decades. In the most destructive episode of public ownership, the British government engaged in a programme of rationalisation, closing lines it considered to be redundant, and allowing limited resources to modernise the remainder.
Unfortunately, the report that decided which lines to close did not take simple demographic and economic factors like population growth into account, cutting the national network to the bone — leaving the UK in 2020 with no spare capacity for rising demand.
— Breitbart London (@BreitbartLondon) February 19, 2015