The Government is about to commit £33 billion to a single high speed rail project – the largest transport investment in UK history. But is this the best use of taxpayers’ money? Other transport investments could outstrip High Speed 2 on value for money and perform better against the scheme’s objectives, but as yet they are unexplored.

The Department for Transport (DfT) has omitted a vital step in what should be a fair, transparent and prudent appraisal of the proposed High Speed 2 (HS2) rail line: it has failed to explore alternative options. At no point in the process have alternative ways of spending the £33 billion HS2 budget even been considered, let alone properly appraised against the scheme’s objectives. We understand these to be:

  • Provide future rail capacity;
  • Catalyse economic growth and job creation in Britain;
  • Rebalance the nation’s economic geography to tackle the ‘North–South divide’; and,
  • Contribute to Britain’s low-carbon future.

Uncertainty around whether HS2 will actually meet its objectives is growing; it is vital that we have an open, informed debate on the scheme. That is why nef has developed an example of an ambitious, alternative transport investment package that, for £33 billion, could bring as many or more benefits as the new high-speed rail link. Compiled through interviews with transport experts, as well as a detailed review of government and academic literature, our package contains a total of 88 individual investments, falling into the following categories.

  • Major upgrades to the East Coast and West Coast Mainlines.Upgrading the UK’s two major North–South railways would cost-effectively increase the speed, reliability and capacity of long-distance, inter-regional journeys. Plus, it would avoid the need to build an energy intensive, ecologically damaging new link.
  • Regional rail enhancements. Investing in the rail connections between towns and cities in the Midlands and the North would give a lift to regional employment centres, and address the North-South economic divide more effectively than focusing solely on long-distance, inter-regional travel.
  • Mass transit projects and bus network funding. Improving bus and tram networks in four core cities in the Midlands and the North, and introducing smart integrated ticketing systems (similar to the Oyster Card system in London), would help boost regional economies and reduce pressure on railways and roads.
  • Cycling and walking infrastructure. Substantial financial support from central government for active transport – on a par with the spending in the capital – could transform the cycling and walking landscape across the Midlands and North of England. Not only would this boost individual health and well-being, it would encourage low-carbon travel and help regional towns and cities become places where people want to live, and businesses want to locate.
  • Super-fast broadband rollout. Upgrading nearly-outdated broadband infrastructure in ten core cities would deliver faster, more reliable internet access to homes and businesses throughout the country. As well as boosting growth, this would reduce the demand for business travel – releasing pressure on roads, railways and air.

As our alternative package demonstrates, we don’t necessarily have to spend the entire £33 billion currently earmarked for HS2 on one make-or-break scheme. It’s possible that spreading the capital across many diverse projects, in a way that is responsive to local as well as national needs, could reap much wider economic, social and environmental dividends.

Something fundamental has been lost in the HS2 debate. The point of any investment is to meet needs or goals; these are what determine why and how we invest scarce funds. The concern with HS2 – the biggest transport investment in in UK history – is that the means (HS2) have overshadowed the ends (economy, environment and rail capacity), with no assurance that the two are truly connected. There could be better ways to meet our national goals, and as custodian of our public funds the government must step back from unsubstantiated rhetoric on HS2 in order to explore and assess these opportunities properly.

Image credit: mako_side_b via Flickr