Like most things that cost “enormous sums of money”, says Charles Moore in The Daily Telegraph, the saga of HS2 “all began with politics”. As chancellor, Gordon Brown accepted a 2006 report rejecting Britain’s need for a new high-speed rail system. But after becoming PM, Brown got “jittery” that the Tories would steal a march on Labour at the next election by promising one. So after a discussion “which took fewer than 10 minutes”, he and his Cabinet “waved through one of the most expensive infrastructure projects ever devised”. Even Peter Mandelson admitted, in 2013, that it was a mistake. Perhaps the “most glaring gap in our analysis”, he wrote, was whether the £30bn cost – which may now top £100bn – could be better spent elsewhere.
In Westminster and Whitehall, that “Brownian incuriousness about price” prevails. For some reason, the aim is for HS2 trains to hit 400km/h, “a third above continental equivalents”. That means the tracks must run straight and level, which entails a vast amount of expensive cutting and tunnelling – between London and Birmingham, “passengers will see the sky for only seven minutes of the entire journey”. As for whether the money could have been spent better elsewhere, that’s a no-brainer. In the year to April 2022, Britain spent £5.8bn on its roads, compared to £5.6bn on HS2. Yet rail is used for just 2% of journeys by volume, and 9% by distance. “Road accounts for well over 80%.” Thank goodness Rishi Sunak looks set to change course. It’s time someone “burst the consensus that floated HS2 like some great blimp in the political sky”.