In its report published yesterday, the Select Committee has succeeded in drawing opposite conclusions simultaneously. The headline can be taken as a go-ahead signal - but the qualifications are so many and so significant (see preceding post) that it must be read as a recommendation to stop and reconsider the project.
It seems to me that the real question that still needs to be asked is whether, given a decision to spend this amount on transport, high speed rail is the best investment.
To get at the cost of an alternative, a comparison is the reconstruction of the line between Edinburgh and Tweedbank, a 49km stretch, at a cost of around £250 million - £5 million per km. The cost of the 200km HS2 line between London and Birmingham is given as £16 billion - £80 million per km. However, HS2 includes some very expensive tunneling at the London end which would have to be constructed regardless if capacity is to be increased, whilst the Edinburgh to Tweedbank route will not of course, be electrified, and is partially single track. Taking account of these differences, a reasonable estimate for reinstating an existing alignment as a good quality main line would be around £10 million per km for a double track route, plus another £2 million for electrification - a total of around £12 million.
Thus, the same amount of money will buy many times more conventional railway - and there are worthwhile schemes all over the country waiting to be built, mostly involving reinstatement of Beeching closures in areas where the population has greatly increased, reinstatement of double-track routes which have been singled, works to remove bottlenecks and speed restrictions, and electrification. The route of HS2 itself could be one such reinstatement, and would provide the same capacity enhancement. The existing GC main line alignment, whilst suitable as a conventional railway, cannot, however, be made into a high speed line.
The poor value for money also applies to rolling stock. A standard high speed train costs £30 million - that is the price of two conventional trains with the same capacity, or six 4-car Electrostars. But the aim is that some trains would be able to run onto the existing rail network. These would need to be specially designed and cost around £52 million each. This extra cost reflects both the non-standard design and the premium for a one-off order.
It is considerations such as these that the government must now take into account before proceeding further.