High Speed 2 — [Mr George Howarth in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 12th September 2018.

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Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee 9:30 am, 12th September 2018

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The whole concept is completely flawed. In addition, if we travel down from our constituencies in Staffordshire—from Stoke-on-Trent, Wolverhampton or wherever—it takes around one hour 20 minutes or less. We do not need to travel at any greater speed than that. As I have already pointed out, HS2 is not even going to connect with Birmingham New Street. It is a completely crazy project.

On the basis of rail passenger growth on the west coast main line, it is accepted that there is a need to add capacity to meet future demand. The Government have dismissed upgrades to the current rail network and claim that HS2 is

“the best way of getting ahead of current demand on our core transport network.”

That might be true—if the demand were for poor management and a shoddy business case. In reality, capacity could be increased in far more cost-effective ways.

The length of trains could be increased from eight carriages to 12 on the existing main line network. That could be achieved by lengthening station platforms. The speed of existing trains could be increased, which would reduce the time benefit of HS2 compared with traditional rail. That would probably involve engineering solutions to remove bottlenecks on the existing line. The height of trains could be doubled, as has been successfully done on the continent and elsewhere in the world, which would increase capacity. All those solutions and many more would be immeasurably cheaper than HS2, but those small gains together would create a step change in the capacity and efficiency of the network.

If the Government really are bent on spending such a large sum, it is far from clear why it has to be on HS2. Shuttling along at 250 mph is quick compared to the west coast main line, but painfully slow when one considers the trains in development today. By contrast, Richard Branson’s 750 mph Hyperloop One is aiming to operate at nearly three times the speed of HS2. There are those who believe that the country should be focusing on new innovation rather than rebuilding yesterday’s technology. There may be some suggestion that the Hyperloop is a fantasy for the future, but that is what they said about aircraft, and it is the kind of innovative thinking that has to be examined in its own right. The HS2 project is out of time and increasingly obsolete. We need to be more innovative and to spread the improvements in rail infrastructure across the country as a whole.

I want to highlight the Great British Transport Competition from the TaxPayers Alliance—mentioned by my hon. Friend Craig Tracey—which seeks to identify alternatives. It was launched last week with the support of my hon. Friend and is seeking bids from across the country for transport projects that might be more deserving of the colossal sums being funnelled into HS2. There have already been around 50 bids for alternative schemes, which will be judged on their benefit to the local and wider economies, their ability to deliver value for money, the level of public support and the impact on the environment—in short, all the categories on which HS2 fails miserably. I encourage colleagues from all sides to enter the competition and to suggest better destinations for taxpayers’ money than this enormous white elephant.

It is clear that more money needs to be spent on infrastructure, but that needs to be on worthwhile projects—for example, the capacity of existing railways and the repair and maintenance of roads other than motorways. That includes, of course, dealing with potholes, which might seem far removed from HS2, but anyone who travels anywhere around the country in rural areas will know that potholes are the biggest issue of all. In my constituency and where I live, potholes are a massive issue and there is no money available at the moment.

When I had a word with a very senior member of the defence establishment yesterday, he was quite emphatic that he would much rather have the money spent on defence. Members of the Defence Committee and many other Members have also made that clear. Furthermore, we could help to reduce our debt and spend more on the national health service and other public services.

When the public do not support HS2, when environmental groups are up in arms and when it now appears that half the Cabinet want to chuck it, it is time to call it a day. The Chancellor needs to stop throwing money down a black hole and to put the brakes on this vanity project before it leaves the station. I and others have said on many occasions that this is a white elephant, but it is perfectly clear that it is not only a white elephant; it is a dying white elephant—or it certainly should be. I now believe there are grounds for a full review by the Transport Committee and others, as appropriate, and for a full inquiry under the 2005 Act into this disastrous project.