Dr Richard Wellings is Deputy Editorial Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
Earlier this week, in a piece for ConservativeHome, Karen Lumley MP launched an astounding attack on the IEA’s latest research paper, High Speed 2: the next government project disaster? Her article was astounding firstly because it failed to to address the detailed criticisms of HS2 set out in our analysis, and secondly because in places it parroted almost verbatim a briefing released by the ‘Yes to High Speed Rail’ campaign.
Contrary to the assertions of the high-speed rail lobby, our study shows that the economic case for the proposed scheme is very far from robust. Indeed, we conclude there is a high risk that HS2 will be the latest in a long line of government big-project disasters with higher-than-forecast costs and/or lower-than-forecast benefits.
The list of failed schemes includes the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (now known as High Speed 1), where passenger numbers after completion were only a third the level estimated at the planning stage. The line was uneconomic and most of the capital costs had to be written off – at huge expense to taxpayers.
HS2 is also uneconomic, of course. On a commercial basis it will be hugely loss-making, since the costs will far exceed the revenues – hence the need for such enormous subsidies. And the bulk of the financial risks will be borne by taxpayers, who will be forced to fund the scheme whether or not they use the train services. The main beneficiaries will be a fairly small number of relatively wealthy rail travellers, including long-distance commuters subsidised to make even longer trips, while the costs will be dispersed across the tax-paying population of the UK.