High-speed rail links are nothing more than an expensive gimmick

So, when did Britain decide to turn into France? Rewind the clock to the 1970s and the 1980s, and the French decided that building high-speed rail lines between their great industrial cities was the key to their future economic success.

Using new technology and new tracks, speeds were pushed up to what, for the time, was an unheard of 200 miles an hour. The first line, between Paris and Lyon, opened in 1981 and was followed by a network of new routes fanning out around the country.

And how did that work out exactly? The TGV programme cost a vast amount of money. And yet, France’s economy is now in desperate trouble, with growth back down to zero and unemployment rising relentlessly. Whatever else they might have done, the TGV lines have not done very much to boost economic growth.

But now, extraordinarily, the British have decided to copy the French. Work is already advancing on High-Speed 2 (HS2), the new line between London and Birmingham. This is already set to cost around £50bn, and may well end up costing much more.

Now, the government is set to approve plans for HS3, a new high-speed rail link that would connect Manchester and Leeds. The cost? The early estimates are in the region of £7bn, but the true cost could be far higher.

In reality this is just show-boating by politicians. They want to be seen to be doing something for the north, and they want to have a big infrastructure project to unveil. Yet if they were serious about helping that part of the country, then there are far better ways of doing so.

Take the route from Leeds to Manchester. There is, of course, an existing train line between the two cities that works perfectly well, although the lines might well need some upgrading to improve capacity, and some new engines and carriages might help as well.

Right now it takes 55 minutes, but the high-speed link would reduce that to somewhere between 26 and 34 minutes. So the best possible time saving is 29 minutes, although getting to the station and getting on and off the train will, of course, still take the same amount of time.

There is absolutely no serious evidence that taking around 25 minutes off that trip will make any real difference to the economy.

To start with, most of the major northern cities have fairly self-contained economies, and their transport links with London are more important than their links with each other.

Next, over such short distances, the time saving offered by high-speed rail is negligible. If you are going from city centre to city centre, you’ll get the train anyway, whether it takes 55, 34, or 26 minutes, because there would be too much traffic to battle.

But if you were going from suburb to suburb or industrial park to industrial park, you’d still take the car even after the link is built, because it would still be more convenient.

Finally, and most importantly, it is not worth the cost. Take that £7bn figure. In reality, it might turn out to be two or three times that, but £10bn seems a reasonable estimate. If the government has that money spare, then there are far better things it could do with it.

No one would deny that the north needs some help. It has not been growing as fast as London and the southeast or, indeed, as the more prosperous parts of Scotland.

Because the public sector plays a larger role in its economy, the north has suffered from austerity – such as it is – more than other parts of the country. It has not seen the upsurge of tech start-ups or global investment that have powered London’s boom over the last few years.

A better solution to our woes

But a high-speed train line is hardly the answer. If the government genuinely wanted to help the region, it would be far better off creating low-tax enterprise zones across some of the major northern cities.

Plenty of the new tech companies struggling to find office space in Shoreditch might be tempted to move to Leeds or Liverpool if they were exempted from corporation tax and national insurance payments for five years. Alternatively, business rates could be slashed across the region.

The idea that quick transport between cities, and massive infrastructure projects, are the way to promote growth is at least three decades out of date. They make more sense in France, Germany or Spain, where major commercial centres are a long way apart, and high-speed lines can slice an hour or two from journey times.

Yet, even in France, where the distances are far greater than in Britain, the TGV is struggling to pay its way. Traffic, measured by passenger kilometres, peaked three years ago, and is now in decline. Most lines are operating at a loss, and those that make a profit don’t make a commercial return on the cost of building them.

No one expects a high-speed line to make money – it would be a miracle if it did. But it will also do nothing to boost growth – and will stop the government from using its resources on programmes that might actually work. It is a clever gimmick – but nothing else.

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