Walking through Knutsford town centre today I spotted a poster, sponsored by UKIP, arguing that the proposed High Speed rail line between London and Manchester, known as HS2, is a huge waste of taxpayer money.
UKIP MEP for the North West, Paul Nuttall, said “The money would be better spent updating the current transport infrastructure – HS2 is all about London and not benefitting local people.” Having heard the same sentiments murmured amongst various members of the community over the Christmas break, I would like to argue that Mr. Nuttall is completely wrong, and that HS2 is the best possible investment in Manchester’s future; an investment that will bring direct economic benefits, a more skilled workforce and (potentially) a happier population.
It’s ironic, because part of Mr. Nuttall’s claim is correct. HS2 is all about London. HS2 is about couriering people from London to Manchester in a fantastically short 1 hour and 8 minutes. HS2 is about prioritizing the convenience and comfort of Londoners above those in the suburbs of Manchester. Where he is wrong, however, is that the biggest beneficiaries of improved travel are not the Londoners, but rather the people of the North West.
As proud as we are of Manchester’s decade-long economic resurgence, its flourishing arts scene and its prodigious Higher education institutions, there can be no denying that Manchester plays second-fiddle to the thriving metropolis of London, a city whose own economy is bigger than that of Argentina or Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, as a truly cosmopolitan city, London attracts many of the world’s brightest minds in industries as varied as Finance and Fashion.
HS2 is a vital lifeline that will bring much needed knowledge and fiscal capital to the North West from the South East, allowing Manchester to reap a much greater Return on Investment than could ever be received from improving regional services.
Perhaps the most important benefit of implementing HS2 is that it brings Manchester within commuting distance of London. Young people seeking to avoid the exorbitant property prices of the capital without sacrificing the amenities of a large city could be drawn into living in Manchester, earning a salary in London and spending it in the North West. Businessmen and women are happy to make the journey to and from Manchester in a day, increasing inter-regional business transactions from which Manchester stands to benefit much more than London. Regional tourism is likely to increase, putting the North West’s cultural treasures such as Jodrell Bank, The Lake District and Old Trafford within easy reach of London’s 15.6 million annual international visitors.
I will concede the counter-argument that HS2 could take shoppers out of Manchester and into London, but why would we spend an hour getting to London when we have the Trafford Centre on our doorstep? The only substantive argument against HS2 is that the taxpayers money is better spent elsewhere.
I don’t want to argue specific numbers, which are based on a vast amount of ever-changing assumptions, but I think it is intuitive that pound for pound, investing in high speed inter-city connectivity offers a greater ROI than that of improving regional transport links. HS2 could even ultimately prove to be a catalyst for better regional transport links, as new businesses and residents in the area, drawn in by the convenience of HS2, help to fund investment. While the cost may seem exorbitant today, the benefits of the investment will be felt for decades to come. Our current railway system was built over 150 years ago during the Victorian period, in a time when the importance of world-class infrastructure was more acutely felt than today.
The positive externalities associated with building HS2 are also extremely desirable. Capitalizing on the construction of Crossrail, HS2 has the potential to solidify the credentials of a new, highly-skilled construction force whose experience in building world-class, large-scale infrastructure projects will leave them highly in demand for similar projects from the private sector and foreign governments around the world. As with the development of Sport City prior to the Manchester Commonwealth Games in 2002, HS2 has the potential to bring lasting, skilled employment to the region. Increased rail capacity will improve the efficiency of our trains while ensuring more comfort to passengers. A better rail service could result in people giving up their cars once and for all, reducing the congestion of our motorways. The list of positive externalities goes on.
The final point I want to make is a defense of massive investment in public transport infrastructure. Many people believe that self-driving cars will one day remove the need for any public transport at all, but I believe that well-designed, well-funded public transport can and will provide the optimum form of travel for all passengers: it can be the most affordable, comfortable and convenient form of travel, increasing the serendipity of encounters with members of the public without compromising personal space for those who desire privacy.
It may seem impossible that public transport will ever match the flexibility and convenience of owning a car, but that is due to an auto-dominated government mindset which has incentivized massive investment in infrastructure for the car for more than 60 years. HS2 makes an important statement for future generations that we will not allow our public transport to be left in the Victorian era.
HS2 is not just an expensive, “nice to have” addition to our rail network. HS2 is a vital inter-city link which will bring essential direct and indirect benefits to the people of the North-West. Don’t let propaganda convince you otherwise.
Until next time!