Wednesday, 30 May 2012

HS2 and Public Accounts Committee: big hoops

South Northants District Council is examining the possibility of adding a station to the West Coast Main Line, making use of capacity released by HS2.
At the behest of one of my most febrile Twitter followers, I’ve been watching YouTube. Specifically, a series of short outtakes from a recent parliamentary Public Accounts Committee hearing into High Speed 2. Then, for levity, I watched a video to accompany the release of ‘Big Hoops’, the new single by Canadian-Portuguese singer Nelly Furtado.

Needless to say the videos do not have all that much in common, although it was perhaps telling that neither PAC nor Ms Furtado managed to utter the word ‘railway’, or even ‘transport’. And that is a serious point: whilst last year’s long, forensic investigation by the Transport Select Committee examined HS2 in the round, putting it correctly into context as an ambitious, large-scale, two-decade programme, these clips do precisely the opposite. But maybe ‘context’ is overrated in the YouTube era…

Nevertheless, despite an unnecessarily hectoring tone which appears not to allow for any reply whatever from the interviewee, during the clips the PAC interviewer makes two points. One, that the Cabinet Office has assessed the current HS2 proposal, and given it an ‘amber/red’ rating, indicating doubts about aspects of the proposal in its present form. Second, that ridership data suggests that greater focus should be placed on ‘regional’ transport, although importantly the edit allows for no definition of the term ‘regional’.

The civil servants ascribing the ‘amber/red’ outlook to HS2 do not explain their position, and my understanding is that the related report has not been published. It is therefore unwise to speculate as to what may have triggered such a warning. But let me be clear: such caution is no surprise. I would have been shocked if any assessment of HS2 at this early stage in its gestation had merely waved it through.

The debate which surrounds the project is healthy, searching questions ought to be asked of the project promoters, and the assumptions contained in the many hundreds of official documents HS2 generates should be scrutinised. I hope HS2 Ltd manages to find its own voice away from its political masters in Marsham Street, however, in order that some of the more esoteric aspects of this debate might be addressed head on (including the canard that the UK is ‘too small’ for high speed rail, or the evidence-free, determinist fantasy that ‘the internet’ will somehow supersede travel).

On the ‘regional’ issue, it is a shame PAC Chairman Margaret Hodge offered no elucidation on her choice of term. Perhaps by ‘regional’, she meant the kind of project that would speed journeys between non-London cities, say Birmingham and Leeds for example? Or a project that might permit a radically better service to intermediate towns on our busiest main lines (like, say, Stone in Staffordshire)? Or maybe she meant focusing on the potential for opening railway stations in communities with poor local transport links. Maybe she meant somewhere like South Northants?

Well, she declined to specify so I can only interpret. There can be no doubt that, to paraphrase Ms Furtado, HS2 has some big hoops still to jump through. But with a project of this scale, it is only right that it is seen in context – a transport context, which sees HS2 for what it is: an inter-city axis for sure, but simultaneously a regional railway, and a commuter one, and a freight one too. That is what the phrase ‘released capacity’ means, and those benefits are beyond contention.

We surely need a more informed assessment of the infrastructure we have today, its potential and its limitations, and the transport network we want to see tomorrow.

It will take more than a few 90 sec video clips to obscure that vision.