The Great Train Robbery
by James Rentoul, Associate Director

Earlier this week, Channel 4’s Dispatches programme revealed a cabinet-level battle for the soul of HS2. Originally forecast to cost £32.7 billion, some now predict a budget of well over £80 billion. Against this background, a ComRes poll for Dispatches shows that just 12% of the public feel that HS2 represents good value for taxpayers’ money. They are also more than twice as likely to want the project scrapped than not (43% vs. 20%).

Finances are not the only reason why HS2 is causing such controversy. For one, the benefits of HS2 have not got through to the wider public, including to many in the areas it is intending to serve. While the line is projected to carry around 100 million passengers a year, a number greater than the entire UK population, almost three quarters, 72%, of those surveyed think that HS2 will not benefit them personally at all.

Tellingly, almost two-thirds of those living in the North East would prefer the money spent on Northern Powerhouse Rail instead, a scheme that would link major cities in the north of England, and cost nearer the original bill for HS2. If those in the region most likely to benefit from HS2 are not more supportive, and most people think it will not benefit them, it is hardly surprising that the wider British public, who will be footing the bill for its construction, are opposed to it.

In fairness to HS2, it is also arguably a victim of fallout from the issues that have beset the rail industry over the last few years. The disruption caused by changes to railway timetabling, and the transference of the East Coast train line into public hands, have sharpened focus on and criticism of the sector for not delivering for passengers. Although the National Rail Passenger Survey shows 79% of rail passengers are satisfied overall with their most recent journey, this is the lowest level since 2008.

However, rail does not necessarily underperform when compared to other forms of transport. Satisfaction levels with UK rail are actually broadly in line with UK aviation – the UK Aviation Consumer Survey, conducted for the CAA by ComRes, shows satisfaction with the overall air travel experience at 82%, roughly level with rail passenger satisfaction (79%).

Despite this, it is overwhelmingly rail that is bearing the brunt of public ire at the moment. Accordingly, the vast majority of respondents surveyed for Dispatches think that the money for HS2 could be better spent on existing railways (72%) or on local commuter lines (67%). While large-scale infrastructure may be attention-grabbing, there is a clear appetite among the public for a back-to-basics approach that focuses on increasing capacity and reliability on the existing rail network, rather than building entirely new railways.

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