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coalition government in two very uncomfortable positions. They cannot realistically defend high speed rail as an alternative to Heathrow expansion because the places high speed rail will serve directly – Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds – account for a mere three per cent of Heathrow’s air-traffic movements. The Conservatives’ pronouncements

‘Other weaknesses totter precariously upon these shaky foundations’

None sounds even vaguely like a realistic answer to the problem of pushing still more traffic – of a variety of different speeds – onto a twisting, up-and-down line built by cheapskate 19th-century railway companies. Bold thinking is needed about knotty infrastructure

challenges such as HS2. Yet, no matter how one contorts one’s mind, it remains impossible to see how the UK can expect to let the West Coast Main Line choke up entirely and still

have a viable rail sector. Nor does it seem realistic to build a replacement conventional-speed route. If a new line is to be built, the reduced journey times high speed rail offers outweigh the disadvantages in extra pollution, noise and cost of building. The government’s approach is, anyway, highly unlikely to

have also given campaigners in the Chilterns the impression that there is a genuine chance of a major route rethink. Given the other weaknesses in the case for the line, it defies belief that it could withstand the weakening effect of making the journey longer and the line more expensive to build. Other weaknesses totter precariously upon these shaky

foundations. The success of the existing rail network is, paradoxically, among them. High speed rail between Madrid and Barcelona was always likely to be a success because the slow, inefficient rail service it supplanted had 10 per cent less of the market than air traffic between the two cities. Between London and Manchester, the rail-air split is now 80 per cent in rail’s favour. It is an obvious and now well-worn point that rail is going to need to win significantly more passengers to meet even the £32bn cost for the initial London to Birmingham line. But it remains unlikely it can win enough extra traffic through a reduction in the London to Manchester journey time – already only just over two hours – to 80 minutes and an improvement in train frequency from three per hour to four. Arguments about high-speed rail’s environmental benefits are

also looking threadbare. High speed trains consume far more energy than existing ones. The risk must be that many high speed passengers will come from less energy-hungry trains, rather than more polluting aircraft and cars. The weaknesses all add up to a benefit to cost ratio of 2.7 to one – a ratio considerably less than the four to one of the Northern Hub rail scheme in Manchester and well below the six, seven and more to one ratios of even some road schemes for which the government is currently refusing funding. Philip Hammond, the transport secretary, has taken to saying

that decisions need to rely on far more than cost-benefit analyses. If the government relied only on cost-benefit analysis, it would pour most of its funds into expanding roads in south-east England, he says. He could equally well remark that most cost-benefit analyses give Heathrow expansion a much better score than the HS2 plans. But the nay-sayers sound utterly unconvincing on one key point.

High-speed rail’s opponents have devised or seized upon a variety of ideas that they claim could expand capacity on the nearly-full West Coast Main Line. Campaigners reel off complex details of signalling systems that they claim would leave the main line with space to spare.

change. One close, sympathetic observer describes its transport strategy as: ‘The answer’s high speed rail. Now what was the question?’ The quip sums up the wrong-headedness of the way the government has reached its present policy. But, however

unpopular it might be in Wendover, support for HS2 probably remains the right stance.

ROBERT WRIGHT is transport correspondent for the Financial Times:

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