High-speed rail: more doubt over the economic case

In all the arguments about High Speed Two, the Government’s sexy new supertrain from London to Birmingham, it’s often forgotten that we already have a High Speed One – the domestic service along the Eurostar high-speed line from London to Kent. Instead of speculating about the high-speed future, we can go and see it for ourselves. As I described in Sunday’s paper, a visit makes a deeply sobering experience for any advocate of high-speed rail. Journey times are often little, if at all, quicker than they were before. Many of the high-speed trains run almost empty. And the conventional services that people actually do want to use have significantly deteriorated.

One area I didn’t have enough space to cover in detail was the economic impact of the line. Many people – not least the Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond – have claimed that HS2 will create “huge economic benefits,” with a “transformational” impact on the Midlands and North. But the experience of HS1 does not support these claims.

If anywhere along the Kent route benefited the most, it should be the town of Ashford – whose service to London is now entirely on new, dedicated high-speed track, and whose journey time to St Pancras is now 38 minutes. Ashford council has indeed claimed that HS1 is “proving an economic boon” for the town, and estate agents have hyped the supposed vibrancy of the local property market. All this has been dutifully regurgitated by various journalists.

But there appears no evidence whatever to support these claims – and substantial evidence that they are untrue. Since the line began full operation, in December 2009, Ashford’s unemployment rate has in fact fallen more slowly than the Kent average, more slowly than the South East average, and more slowly even than the Great Britain average (see below).

Over the same period, Ashford’s house prices have also risen more slowly than both the Kent and South Eastern average, though there may have been more of an impact on property values around the line’s other Kent station, Ebbsfleet.

Towns not served by the high-speed line, such as Tonbridge, Maidstone and Hastings, have often done far better on either or both of these measures than towns actually on the line. In two days of asking, neither Ashford council, nor any of the other local regeneration bodies, could provide me with any concrete figures showing that the line had benefited Kent. Instead, they tended to take refuge in woolly arguments about its having improved “perceptions” of the county.

It seems that another argument for high-speed rail is at best not proven, at worst hollow.

Claimant count          Jan      Jan      Jan              % change        % change

unemployment         09       10        11                    on 09              on 10

Ashford                      3.0      3.8       3.5                   +16.6              -7.9

Hastings                     6.7       8.6       7.4                   +10.4              -14

Tonbridge                  2.3       2.9       2.2                   -4.3                 -24.1

Kent                            3.2       3.3       3.0                  -6.2                 -9.1

SE England                2.3       3.0      2.5                   +8.7                -16.6

GB                               3.4       4.1       3.7                   +8.8                -9.8

Source: House of Commons Library, Office of National Statistics

Place names are parliamentary constituencies

House prices  (annual % change Q4 2009- Q4 2010)

South East  +7.4

Kent                +5

Tun Wells      -2.9

Thanet           -0.9

Swale              +0.4

Shepway        +2.8

Ashford          +3.9

Dover             +5.4

Maidstone      +6.3

Canterbury    +6.8

Sevenoaks     +7.9

Gravesham    +8.1

Dartford         +12.5

Tonbridge      +14.5

Source: Land Registry. Place names are local authority areas

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