Please, somebody – save us from big project onanism
The BBC news site has given a reasonably balanced account of the HS2/high speed rail ding-dong that’s been going on for the last year or so, ever since Camerlot gave it the thumbs up. But as usual with Auntie, any analysis and interpretation of the facts placed before us is risible…and the conclusion of the writer absent. This applies whether one debates short term gains, long term payback or the socio-cultural advisability of this in the first place. So let’s take a squint at the factors and maths that come into play here.
First, the saving from London to Birmingham is 36 minutes on a 1hr 25min scheduled journey. The whole London to Glasgow stramash is etsimated at £32bn (hahahahahahahahahahahaha sorry about that) but the Birmingham bit weighs in at an optimistic £17bn. The Institute of Economic Affairs says the cost will require a £1,000 contribution per taxpayer.
I need someone to explain to me how saving 36 minutes at just under £2bn a minute – even when the train runs to time – is going to make that much difference to any economy, let alone ours. Want an earlier meeting? Set off 36 minutes earlier. Can’t find a good train? Use Skype. Or a car, or a bus. Want to export more goods? Tip: don’t travel to Birmingham – there are no foreigners there. Want to dash from one meeting to another in the shortest time? Organise your diary better. Want the fastest rail link to an airport in Europe? Go to Paddington, fly from Heathrow, hold the meeting in an airport hotel.
Sorry, but the idea that 36 minutes will make any difference to a deal of use to Britain in the future is nonsense. Spending the money training good teachers to teach well would produce a far higher return.
Second, the amount of agricultural land we will lose to do this would represent a retrograde step. Not a huge amount in the short term, but look at some of the long-term hubris in plans for more of the same….and add to these all the Cameron-mates housing projects and idiot wind turbines on the agenda for our mad betters. The National Farmers’ Union comments:
‘The NFU expects the following factors to be taken into account…how much of the best and most versatile agricultural land will be lost…..[and] The importance of ensuring there are sufficient ‘occupation’ bridges to enable farmers to continue farming in an efficient manner.’
Since they made this statement in March 2010, our farmers have become more concerned – especially in Scotland. The Woodland Trust, Forestry Commission and several others opposed to Concrete Britannia have also aired worries. 40,000 negative responses were received by Philip Hammond during his time there.
Third, the simple ROI (payback) calculation doesn’t make sense. I understand that rail is infrastructure and all that, but it won’t be finished until 2026. Allowing very optimistically for compound inflation at 3% per annum, the cost would be around £32bn, not £17bn. Now multiply this by 1.8 (the average spend over budget on public works since 1976) and we’re up to £57bn. That’s the estimated rake-in from the new proposed EU financial transactions tax. It is the size of the entire Indian packaging sector. Closer to home, it is 9 (nine) times the UK’s trade gap.
Think about it this way: even if this one link between two cities in the UK knocked 10% per annum off our trade gap, it would take almost a century to pay for itself. And trust me, it isn’t going to do a scintilla of that. Forgetting constant prices for a second, this is another of those politically onanist projects that will, very likely, never pay for itself: it is a Humber Bridge in the making.
Finally – and for me, most crucially of all – the very assumptions of efficiency underlying this way of transport thinking are myopic and wrong-headed. For Britain, the future is going to be about added-value exporting and greater self-reliance at a national and personal level. It isn’t going to be about plonkers dashing pointlessly from one service-industry client meeting to another.
From my own thirty years of tedious hundreds of hours spent on planes and trains, in cars and even on buses, I can tell you that a huge proportion of all meetings are utterly useless – especially those requiring travel. Many can now be handled via Skype-style formats; more still take place because some engorged ego somewhere wants to summon people to his or her presence.
But don’t just take my word for it. With 84% of UK employees taking some 14 million overnight domestic business trips each year, as long ago as 2005 Travelodge (of all people) did some research revealing that UK organisations are spending over £1.3 billion every year on unnecessary and extravagant business trips. Talking to friends still working at the millstone, I can assure you the amount will be bigger today.
Planners too often forget that business travel is an emotional market. Suits just love being seen in First Class, troughing into the whole full breakfast thing, the watch-me-use-my-new-gizmo thing. Dave moves in the sort of circles where almost everyone he knows gets off on this nonsense. But do the time and motion on it, and the whole circus is an insane indulgence. One of the biggest potential benefits to the UK economy would be an increase in white-collar productivity. As well as saving wasted travel time, the new possibilities for teleworking increase work output during the hours worked at home or at one office point.
If we want to make a contribution to UKplc profit over the next twenty years, then high-speed freight lines going from currently run-down manufacturing areas to our ports would contribute far more to margins or efficiency – and create thousands of jobs in both places. Research shows that Birmingham and Glasgow are not seaports. I’m not being silly about this: nobody believes more than me in the vital importance of personal chemistry in business. It is central to both clinching and retaining business. But when flogging a physical product with cachet, that chemistry gets you in the door – not into market leadership. The Chinese and Indians buying BMWs in their tens of thousands care far more about German engineering and the badge on the bonnet than they do about the CEO’s ability to tell an anecdote or choose a restaurant. More R&D, better marketing, better design and more thought per se: this is what British business needs, not more speed while bashing the company’s expense account.
I am a great believer in the adage that going twice as fast is an excellent way to reach the wrong place even more quickly. Far too much corporate thought confuses action with progress. But the HS2 project isn’t about corporate thought: Cameron is keen on talking about political will, but this – his pet project – is really about political willy.
IEA deputy editorial director Dr Richard Wellings has said: “HS2 is another political vanity project – like Concorde and the Millennium Dome – being ploughed ahead with complete disregard for properly thought through commercial prospects or the mounting opposition to it. Its environmental credentials are questionable, its projected passenger figures suspect, and its proposed regenerative effects highly dubious.”
That summation certainly rings my bell. The last time I saw the Prime Minister talking about HS2 a fortnight ago, his profound estimation of its worth went like this: “It will drive our economy forward”.
Yes, well. Hmm. That’s Dave for you.