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HS2: Taking a Giant, Expensive, Leap Into the Unknown

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Tomorrow, Transport Secretary Justine Greening is expected to take to the floor of the House of Commons and announce that the government is going to green light the High Speed Rail 2 (HS2) project.

The coalition's approval of the 100-mile 'state-of-the-art' train track linking London and Birmingham at a cost of £17 billion, would mark the beginning of a scheme that is conservatively estimated at costing a total of £32 billion and won't be finished until (an again cautiously estimated) 2032.

In advance of the announcement, National Rail - who have, understandably, always been big fans of the HS2 project - released a report saying that it was our only option or "Britain's busiest and most economically vital rail artery will be full with no more space to accommodate the predicted growth in demand."

Joining NR in support of the scheme were 100 business leaders, who added their voice to the pro-campaign; presumably supporting anything that will shave a few minutes off their frequent trips into the City of London.

The various and vividly named anti-HS2 groups, made up initially of people living along the route and since steadily widened to include all who oppose the project, responded quickly with their assessment of the costs, consequences and alternatives. And the economic thinktanks and environment campaign groups - of which the Countryside Alliance is one - had soon also joined the fray, with Matthew Sinclair, Director of the TaxPayers' Alliance, saying "the project would cost every British family £1000 and only benefit a small minority. There has to be a question whether this is fair while the business case is quite weak."

The High Speed Rail 2 project has been hugely contentious. Politically it has split almost every one of the major parties. Although the party leaderships are broadly supportive, MPs of all hues from along the route, a sizeable chunk of backbench Conservatives (and Boris), Labour and Lib Dems MPs in the North East and even the SNP have voiced something between concerns and high-profile opposition to the scheme.

In the media it has achieved the remarkable feat of bringing together the centre-left Independent and right-of-centre Daily Telegraph in their scepticism of the project. And, as with any good campaign, both sides have wheeled out celebrity endorsements (including Chris Tarrant and Harry Potter's Weasley twins on the 'no' side) and dubious protest songs.

Arguments abound as to whether what looks like being an extremely expensive venture will actually succeed. The Economist and the Daily Telegraph both point to examples of where High Speed Rail projects have ended up as high-profile failures. But clearly there are problems of capacity on Britain's rail lines that the current infrastructure cannot contain forever.

The truth is that no-one can be completely sure how HS2 will fare in the future. It does seem that the original business case (and the claim of joining-up North and South) was overstated, and it could be argued that the demand for train travel - being touted as the key reason for the investment - has been similarly inflated. For example, when the business case for the Channel Tunnel was being discussed, 15.9 million passengers were predicted for Eurostar trains in their opening year. However in 1995, its first full year, actual numbers were a little over 2.9 million and last year were still only around the 9.5 million mark.

As ever, the danger is that all of this macroeconomics ends up pushing out the microeconomics - the lives of those on whom (for at least for the next 20 years) High Speed Rail will have the greatest impact. Not 'Nimbys', as the usually measured former Transport Minister Lord Adonis cruelly describes them in today's Times, but ordinary people who live and work along the route and are either being forced to sell their homes to the government, or will end up selling the homes and closing their businesses because of the disruption.

Yes there have always been those opposed to progress. But we're not talking about the Galileo or the Industrial Revolution here - we're talking about 40 minutes off the journey between London and Birmingham - at a cost of £17 billion of public money! And, when no-one can be quite sure of the scheme's success, it does all seem like a little too high a price to pay.

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