HS2: The story of Great British decline

So much for “Great Britain”. Looking back at the last fifteen years we may as well be “Stagnant Britain”. From the Mongolians to the Venetians, the first symptoms of a crumbling state are found in its public infrastructure. The United Kingdom is no different. The HS2 story is but another in a tale of poor investment in public services in Britain. The abandonment of HS2 amounts to an almost criminal offence toward the British taxpayer. So much for the Northern powerhouse, so much for Scottish integration, so much for progress. 

Britain has fallen out of love with economic growth. Our economy is the worst performing in the G7 and has not grown in real terms per capita beyond 2007 levels. The average Briton is no better-off now than they were 16 years ago. 

From the Mongolians to the Venetians, the first symptoms of a crumbling state are found in its public infrastructure.

With our Western peers outgrowing us, the cause can only be structural. Economic stagnation traces back to improper investment into the public need – whether that be transport, local councils or community projects. This process of destruction began with Thatcherism and ended with austerity. Our economic decline can be directly mapped to our inability to deliver on key infrastructure projects. Far from our great road, rail and energy projects of the past; we now struggle to finish something as simple as a 14-mile relief road.  

Rishi Sunak is just another Prime Minister at-odds with what will benefit the economy, despite his promises otherwise. HS2 is merely another pawn in a Tory war on prosperity. Its abandonment has been mobilised, like an extraordinarily expensive weapons platform (the failed Ajax programme comes to mind), by Rishi Sunak against the growth of the British Economy. 

The origin of the decimation of Britain’s railways is the failed experiment of privatisation. In 1994, an embattled Conservative Government took it upon themselves to crown Thatcher’s wishes by selling British Rail into private hands. Unlike British Airways, however, the sale of British Rail could never seek to generate proper competition – it would never work, not even in theory. 

Railways can only facilitate a single train at any one time. Railways consist of popular profitable routes and unprofitable routes serving smaller communities. Railways require large upfront investment to make progress. Air travel never had these issues. British Railways should’ve never been put into private hands. 

If I were a businessman in 1994 and wanted to take advantage of the new rail liberalisation policy, my rail start-up could surely try and bring in a new competitive route from Leeds to London? Sadly, it couldn’t. The line would already be in use for another service. Even if I could secure a spot on the line, I’d have to win a contract from the government. The companies that win government contracts are granted exclusive rights to some of the most profitable routes for an extended duration of time. 

Private rail companies are therefore (and by design) state-subsidised, foreign-owned, profit-maximising monopolies. They exploit the taxpayer by reaping egregious subsidies to run their lines, all the while exploiting the commuter with exuberant fares in the name of private profits. Not to mention that any profits are now removed from the economy and sent to the foreign rail owners. The Spanish and French Governments receive profits from British railways, but the British Government doesn’t. 

(Private rail companies) exploit the taxpayer by reaping egregious subsidies to run their lines, all the while exploiting the commuter with exuberant fares in the name of private profits.

Rail subsidies have increased dramatically since privatisation and show no sign of slowing. Despite the necessity to bid for, and fulfil, contracts, rail companies still collect government subsidies to help them run unprofitable lines. 

Modern British transport infrastructure is built on the assumption that people will use a variety of transport means to travel. Those on high-speed lines into central London will commute by train not car, those in rural communities will commute by car, not train. The railways, like motorways, are a public service and one that was carefully designed to be used proportionally. 

When rail was put in private hands, the government also gave those same hands a large customer-base with no alternative transport means. Those living in “commuter-line” towns couldn’t easily just drive to work if prices rose. After all, we can’t magic-up new roads overnight. 

Therefore, if prices rose, and they did, people had no other choice than to pay more. Private companies win contracts, people pay more for tickets, the government still pays subsidies, taxes rise, investment falls, service worsens, private companies win contracts and so on and so on the cycle goes. Privatisation created this cycle of despair, one which was emulated in many other state industries and local services. The result is a hollowed-out public  sector.

An obsession with private ownership seems to stem from the love affair Britain has with the United States. Yet the so-called “special relationship” seems rather unidirectional. After all, I’ve never heard Americans fantasise over the British political system. The United Kingdom is not the United States, nor will it ever be. They are structurally, politically and socially distinct. 

Privatisation created this cycle of despair, one which was emulated in many other state industries and local services.

However, neither is the United Kingdom mainland Europe. Privatised industry has a place in Britain where it doesn’t in its European counterparts. Privatisation was never going to work for the railways or energy providers, but it did work for the airlines and oil companies. Telecommunications privatisation has been a success, whereas water supply privatisation has been a failure (see the Thames Water fiasco). 

British public policy used to be defined by a clear rationale and prudent decision making in order to navigate its European and American influences. Yet, it seems that the British political system is now steeped in partisanship and ideology. This is the political change that brought about rail privatisation and is the one that continues to tear apart our public sector. 

Such episodes of decline have been seen before. The government sought a solution; a new high speed rail line was one such solution, and a good one at that. To be the envy of the world – 200mph, 18 trains an hour, sections up to Manchester, Leeds, Glasgow – a new UK mainline (the first since the 19th century) was the government’s silver bullet. As continual minor rail improvement schemes failed in delivering real change, it became clear the country needed a new mainline. 

The government itself tacitly admitted it made mistakes in privatising rail as it drew up the plans for HS2. A state-owned operator would run the line. It would be fully electrified and stop at key developing towns and cities. It would run through to Scotland to bring the UK closer together and charge affordable fairs to get cars off the road. The Conservative Party admitted its own failings and covered them by investing in a new rail project. 

However, one by one, the Jenga pieces that made up the HS2 project began to fall. First, costs ballooned as stories of mismanagement surfaced and the need to hide the line from rural Conservative voters by digging trenches became a political reality. Next, lines to Leeds and Sheffield were scrapped by Boris Johnson. He promised the completion of the rest of the HS2 project and that saved cash would be diverted to Northern Powerhouse Rail. This was a scheme that funded a number of projects, including improved lines across the Pennines. However, they had already received government funding several years prior. HS2 was used to deceive the taxpayer, while undermining any sense of “levelling up”. 

Then came the cancellation of phase 2 to Manchester (running on to Glasgow). Another blow to the North and another promise to use saved funds on other rail improvement projects. Managing to one-up Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak promised to use the freed cash to fund projects that had already been completed. One project cited was extending the Metrolink tram to Manchester Airport, an extension which opened in 2014. 

HS2 was used to deceive the taxpayer, while undermining any sense of ‘levelling up’.

Even now it is uncertain whether HS2 will reach Euston leaving us with a £70bn train line from Old Oak Common (a station that cannot handle HS2 passenger numbers) to Birmingham. A pitifully embarrassing showcase to the world of how useless we are, how much our country has fallen from grace, and how little our leaders care about anything but the Southeast. 

The deceit, sleaze, and partisanship doesn’t stop there. As the Conservative Party prepares to inevitably leave office, it is hurriedly selling the land it bought for phase 2 of HS2 at reduced prices. Taking knock-down prices on taxpayer investments to ensure future governments can never reinstate the full HS2 project without enormous expense. This is nothing but criminal. 

To cancel a key public infrastructure project, deceive the public as to where the saved funds would be reinvested, and then sell-off public investment at a discount rate to ensure no one can reinstate the project is a despicable offence to the British taxpayer. It is one that epitomises this country’s complete demise. 

The refusal to invest in public infrastructure by this country’s government is simply baffling. The promises made by this country’s government regarding “levelling up” are dishonest. The choices made by this country’s government regarding HS2 are criminal. Bring on the Great British decline.

Image Credit: New HS2 train design image – Hitachi-Bomb by Hitachi Rail, licensed under CC BY 3.0, cropped from original.

Image Description: Two High-Speed trains stopped at a station.