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Economic Case for HS2 (Economic Affairs Committee Report) — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:27 pm on 16th September 2015.

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Photo of Lord Mitchell Lord Mitchell Labour 5:27 pm, 16th September 2015

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Hollick for introducing this debate and for chairing the committee which produced the report. Its conclusions are very brave and stand in opposition to the stated policies of most political parties. Having said that, I am not sure where my own party stands on this issue, but no doubt that will emerge in the mists of time.

I take a slightly different view on this. I want to look at some of the assumptions that have been made about the revenues on this project: not just where they will be in 10, 15 or 20 years but where they will be over the next 80 years, because that is the length of the analysis that has been done on this project.

When Eurostar opened in 1994, I was on my way to Paris within weeks. When HS1 opened in 2007, I hotfooted it to the stunning new St Pancras station, happy at last not to endure the embarrassment of trundling through south-east London and Kent prior to whizzing through France. I marvelled at the French TGVs and am totally in awe of the high-speed train from Madrid to Seville. I love high-speed trains. Therefore, noble Lords would have thought that I would be full of anticipation and jumping up and down waiting for HS2 to arrive. Well, 20 years from now I will be 92. God willing, I shall be on that train and, God willing, I shall be able to find Euston station.

But I am not. I am against the project not for the reasons set out in the report before us, but because no account has been taken of what the world may look like in 2035, 2065, or indeed 2095. I look at HS2 and all I see is a £50 billion project—at least, I thought it was £50 billion until this afternoon. I now hear that it is £56 billion, and a noble Lord on the other Benches talked in terms of £80 billion. Some £10 billion here and £10 billion there is serious money. Anyhow, I see this project as a potential white elephant.

I see 20th-century technology for a 21st-century world. I see a project that is based on the assumption that the world will stand still, when the only thing that we know for certain is that disruptive technologies will continue to change the way we work, socialise and play. I live in the world of technology. I see constant miniaturisation, processing speeds that double every two years, industries being destroyed and new ones being created. The music industry, movies, taxis, books, manufacturing processes, medicine and television have all been subject to massive disruption. So why not rail travel?

Look at where the research and development is going. Companies such as Google and Apple are committing billions to the design of driverless cars.

These boys and girls do not mess about: they will get there. What will be the implications of driverless cars for all forms of rail travel? I do not know, but maybe we should factor it in.

If it were my decision I would instead commit to another form of communication that is much more appropriate to the 21st century: blisteringly fast broadband connection throughout the country, in both rural and urban areas, offices and homes. It would be just like electricity: everyone connected, and connected fast. If we had that, we would be able to communicate with each other in an entirely different way: not over railway lines, but over fibre-optic lines, not at 250 miles per hour but at 180,000 miles per second.

We already communicate with each other using Skype and FaceTime. These are still hesitant, but good enough. Video conferencing is used by large organisations. It is very expensive and you have to go into a dedicated room, but it is improving quickly and universal fast broadband will hasten it along. I have been criticised for this before, but I am a big advocate of holograms. I believe that with fast broadband we would be able to see people materialise in front of us on devices yet to be invented. This is not science fiction. It will happen. When it does, who would want to get up early in the morning, get to a station, get on any train—fast or slow—struggle for taxis, buses and tube trains at the other end, and repeat the exercise to get home late at night? Who would do that when the option is to have the same meeting at home or in one’s own office?

When the HS2 debate started it was all about speed. When that failed to convince, it was all about capacity: passenger numbers that will continue to increase. But will they? For a time they will, but as the internet gets more powerful I am certain that rail travel will fall out of fashion and the digital alternatives will be chosen. If this happens, the Excel spreadsheets so beloved of those who support this project will begin to look pretty thin.

I make one final point. HS2’s supporters portray it as a magical solution that will bring London and the north together: an accelerator of the northern powerhouse. As my noble friend Lord Prescott said, let us get on with HS3: that is where fast rail speeds really could count. Manchester to London in half the time? I will avoid cheap shots about waiting for taxis at Euston or Piccadilly, or traffic jams on the Euston Road. But I will say this: instead of selling the virtues of Manchester being better connected with London, how about getting Manchester better connected digitally with Shanghai or Rio—or indeed even Blackburn?