Cutting journey time from London to Birmingham would be welcome but is it worth £50 billion?

Growing criticism of British government’s plans for high-speed rail network that will carry passengers at 400kph

There is still cross-party support among politicians for the HS2 scheme and the government continues to defend it vigorously

There is still cross-party support among politicians for the HS2 scheme and the government continues to defend it vigorously

 

Long-distance travel on Britain’s creaking rail network is all too often an unreliable, uncomfortable and expensive experience. So cutting the journey time from London to Birmingham by 35 minutes, to just under 50 minutes, would no doubt be welcomed by those making the trek from the capital to the west midlands. But is it worth £50 billion (€58 billion) of taxpayers’ money? Or even £80 billion (€93 billion)?

That’s the question at the heart of the row over the British government’s plans for a new high-speed rail network, HS2, that will carry passengers at 400kph – faster than any other European rail network – on trains with up to 1,100 seats.

The initial phase of HS2 will be from London to Birmingham, with construction due to start in 2017 with completion in 2026. Further phases will see the line extended in a Y shape to Manchester and Leeds, halving the journey time from London.

HS2 has always been controversial, not least because of the environmental damage it will do as it cuts a swathe through the countryside of the home counties. Numerous alterations have already been made to the proposed route and extra tunnels introduced to restrict the impact on the countryside.

Now the Institute of Directors (IoD), many of whose members stand to benefit from HS2 as they travel north on business, has joined the growing list of those lining up against the project.

Branding it a “grand folly”, the IoD says only a quarter of its members believe the scheme will provide value for money and some 70 per cent believe it will have no impact on the productivity of their businesses. The head of the IoD, Simon Walker, argues that the money would be better spent on improvements to existing lines and says that the case for HS2 is “simply not there”.

When HS2 was proposed, the cost of the new rail network was put at £33 billion and, according to the government, would bring benefits of £47 billion, including tens of thousands of new jobs. That was later increased by £10 billion but the respected Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) has recently suggested costs of the project could spiral to more than £80 million – almost double current estimates. The think tank highlighted the expensive changes to the route that would be needed to keep voters onside and said the cost of the new trains would be £7.5 billion.

Another notable critic to emerge in recent days is Labour’s Alistair Darling, who was chancellor of the exchequer when the scheme was first approved in 2010. Saying he had changed his mind, Darling warned it would drain cash from other lines and risked the existing network “falling apart”.

There is still cross-party support among politicians for the scheme and the government continues to defend it vigorously, warning it is a vital upgrade of Britain’s transport system. But it’s a fair bet that most voters, long-distance travellers or not, could think of better ways to spend £80 billion.


Magic roundabout
The magic roundabout: it sounds fun but it’s the phrase used to describe one of the City of London’s more brutal practices – the early-morning trip home in a taxi after pulling an all-nighter at the office. As the taxi waits outside, the exhausted banker showers and changes and is whisked straight back to his desk.

Bankers collect big rewards so there’s precious little sympathy if they have to work round the clock in return. But the tragic death of 21-year-old Moritz Erhardt, an intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in London, has put the spotlight on working practices endured by junior employees in the industry.

Erhadt, bright, ambitious and hard-working, landed the summer internship in London against fierce competition and was clearly determined to make the most of his opportunity. According to reports, the young German student had pulled eight all-nighters over a two-week period, including three consecutive 21-hour days in the run-up to his death.

In response to the tragedy, Merrill Lynch said it was setting up a panel to review working practices at the bank. There is little doubt that other banks will also be taking a close look at the culture of the all-nigher, particularly for interns and vulnerable junior employees.

There is no suggestion that anyone at the bank demanded its interns should work 23-hour days but managers must surely be aware that a combination of peer pressure and a desire to shine might drive young employees to push themselves too far. Even in the cut-throat world of investment banking, managers have a duty of care to their employees.

Fiona Walsh is business editor of theguardian.com

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