HS2’s left-wing critics feed the “maxed-out credit card” myth at their peril

London Euston. Image: Getty.

The UK’s new railway HS2 is set to swoosh unsympathetically through the countryside just eight years from now. As such, it has attracted the usual clutch of opponents

But amid the concerned villagers, one group stands out. These critics hail from the left, and their issue is not the green fields, but a feeling that the money would be better spent on local transport networks in the cities. By killing HS2, goes this argument, its £56bn budget would be liberated for local causes.

Coming from the left, this is a curious way to frame an argument about spending. By linking the fate of HS2 to improvements in local transport, it reinforces the view that the barrier to local investment is the national finances. The implication is that, as things stand, there is no capacity left in the budget for local projects.

This is a frame of thinking straight from George Osborne: the “maxed-out credit card” which he skillfully deployed to cull a host of public projects and shrink the state. It also runs against Labour’s own economic position that austerity is a political choice, not a necessity.

In practice, the amount of money available depends on which infrastructure projects the government thinks worth investing in. It borrows what’s necessary to pay for them, because as long as the economic gain is more than the borrowing costs, the project will – eventually – pay for itself through increased activity.

The route. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Borrowing too much could eventually increase costs. But many economists argue we are far from that point. With the cost of public borrowing currently at a historic low, they say there’s plenty of room for more long-term public investment. The money is there for improvements in local networks without needing to take from HS2.

Virtuous circles

The real barrier to investing in local transport was that, until recently, the Treasury’s definition of “worth investing in” did not account for the cumulative effect that improved transport would have on local economies over time. Too much emphasis was placed on the effect projects would have in isolation, instead of seeing investment as part of a regional industrial strategy.

While poor connections held Northern cities back, London’s stronger economy justified higher public spending. But each project strengthened its economy further, which in turn strengthened the case for future investment – and so, it kept getting more and more.


That situation is now starting to change. Investing to improve the productivity of the “left-behind” parts of the country is high on the minds of Tory and Labour politicians alike. Strategic factors beyond the usual cost/benefit calculations are recognised as an important part of decisions. Ambitious plans are being drawn up in many cities.

The cheap money is out there to fund these plans. But HS2 or no HS2, cities won’t be able to take advantage of it until the government decides a sustained progamme of local investment is a political priority that will deliver growth.

Those who would simply switch out the budget from HS2 also have little to say on how to solve the issues that it’s needed to fix. Namely, more people travelling between Birmingham and the North; freeing-up space for manufacturers to import materials and export goods along existing lines; and relieving the unreliable and congested West Coast artery. Spending on local transport, while also vitally important, can’t resolve these.

Whether HS2 is technically the cheapest way to achieve the goals is a fair question. Endless reviews return the same conclusion: it is cheaper to build from new in the fields than pouring concrete around the current route, the most intensively used in Europe, while it’s still running.

More often, though, those who would see “the money” simply reallocated are silent on the goals, or argue that local networks are more important.

This is a shame, because it reinforces the myth of a zero-sum choice between equally important priorities. It implies that financial constraints, the “maxed-out credit card” is the problem. In fact, the long-running undervaluing of the importance of a balanced economy is to blame. It sets up the idea that local and national prosperity are mutually exclusive. Building a sustainable economy along the Green New Deal model demands both.

HS2’s critics on the left are right to fight for fairer investment in all parts of the country. But tying that need to HS2’s budget makes no sense – and risks feeding a dodgy spending myth that helps neither.

 
 
 
 

London’s rail and tube map is out of control

Aaaaaargh. Image: Getty.

The geographical limits of London’s official rail maps have always been slightly arbitrary. Far-flung commuter towns like Amersham, Chesham and Epping are all on there, because they have tube stations. Meanwhile, places like Esher or Walton-on-Thames – much closer to the city proper, inside the M25, and a contiguous part of the built up area – aren’t, because they fall outside the Greater London and aren’t served by Transport for London (TfL) services. This is pretty aggravating, but we are where we are.

But then a few years ago, TfL decided to show more non-London services on its combined Tube & Rail Map. It started with a few stations slightly outside the city limits, but where you could you use your Oyster card. Then said card started being accepted at Gatwick Airport station – and so, since how to get to a major airport is a fairly useful piece of information to impart to passengers, TfL’s cartographers added that line too, even though it meant including stations bloody miles away.

And now the latest version seems to have cast all logic to the wind. Look at this:

Oh, no. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

The logic for including the line to Reading is that it’s now served by TfL Rail, a route which will be part of the Elizabeth Line/Crossrail, when they eventually, finally happen. But you can tell something’s gone wrong here from the fact that showing the route, to a town which is well known for being directly west of London, requires an awkward right-angle which makes it look like the line turns north, presumably because otherwise there’d be no way of showing it on the map.

What’s more, this means that a station 36 miles from central London gets to be on the map, while Esher – barely a third of that distance out – doesn’t. Nor does Windsor & Eton Central, because it’s served by a branchline from Slough rather than TfL Rail trains, even though as a fairly major tourist destination it’d probably be the sort of place that at least some users of this map might want to know how to get to.

There’s more. Luton Airport Parkway is now on the map, presumably on the basis that Gatwick is. But that station doesn’t accept Oyster cards yet, so you get this:

Gah. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

There’s a line, incidentally, between Watford Junction and St Albans Abbey, which is just down the road from St Albans City. Is that line shown on the map? No it is not.

Also not shown on the map: either Luton itself, just one stop up the line from Luton Airport Parkway, or Stansted Airport, even though it’s an airport and not much further out than places which are on the map. Somewhere that is, however, is Welwyn Garden City, which doesn’t accept Oyster, isn’t served by TfL trains and also – this feels important – isn’t an airport.

And meanwhile a large chunk of Surrey suburbia inside the M25 isn’t shown, even though it must have a greater claim to be a part of London’s rail network than bloody Reading.

The result of all these decisions is that the map covers an entirely baffling area whose shape makes no sense whatsoever. Here’s an extremely rough map:

Just, what? Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

I mean that’s just ridiculous isn’t it.

While we’re at it: the latest version shows the piers from which you can get boats on the Thames. Except for when it doesn’t because they’re not near a station – for example, Greenland Pier, just across the Thames to the west of the Isle of Dogs, shown here with CityMetric’s usual artistic flair.

Spot the missing pier. You can’t, because it’s missing. Image: TfL/CityMetric.

I’m sure there must be a logic to all of this. It’s just that I fear the logic is “what makes life easier for the TfL cartography team” rather than “what is actually valuable information for London’s rail passengers”.

And don’t even get me started on this monstrosity.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.