The claim

“Each family (is) to pay over £1,000 for a vanity project”
TaxPayers’ Alliance letter to The Daily Telegraph, March 10, 2011

The background

The Government says Britain can’t afford to be left behind any longer. The rest of the developed world has steamed ahead, building high-speed railways since the 1960s.  Japan, China, France, Spain – none of them are showing signs of slowing down.

The state of Britain’s rail network meanwhile, is the commuter’s perennial gripe. And it’s hardly surprising, since our current railway system harks back to the Victorian era.

But the TaxPayers’ Alliance and friends say we can’t afford to catch up. The HS2 plan simply shows off tunnel vision from a “vain government”, they say – and it will cost every family £1,000.

But are they right? FactCheck walks the line.

The analysis

The Government plans to spend £32bn on constructing the ‘Y’ shaped high-speed rail network linking London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. This will also stop in the East Midlands and South Yorkshire, and link to Heathrow Airport. (You can check out the proposed HS2 route here )

Apart from dramatically speeding up journey times, the Government is selling the project as one that will encourage growth and create jobs by linking key cities together.

Yet the TaxPayers’ Alliance branded the HS2 an “extremely expensive white elephant” today – adding that during this time of austerity Britain can ill-afford to spend millions “on a train set that only a minority of fortunate passengers will use”.

In a letter signed by 21 high-profile businessmen – including the likes of Lord (Nigel) Lawson, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer – they argued that the money would be better spent on education or scientific research.

They say the baseline figure for building the ‘Y’ network to Manchester and Leeds will be £30.4bn. Divided by the number of households in Great Britain, excluding Northern Ireland, this works out as an average of £1,206.

For the mathematicians among you:  Graham Long, the director of HS2 Action Alliance told FactCheck that the TaxPayers’ Alliance did the numbers.

They took the most recent data from the Office for National Statistics on the number of UK households in the second quarter of 2009 and – as this was a tad out of date – calculated the projected number of households in 2013 and then averaged back – arriving at March 2011.

The number of UK households they therefore calculated as 25.2m. And £30.4bn divided by 25.2 equals £1,206, FactCheck’s calculator confirms. Plus, our friends at the ONS backed up the raw household stats for us.

So that the figures wouldn’t be undermined, Mr Long said they rounded it down to £1,000 per family.

FactCheck put this to the Department for Transport, which didn’t argue. But the DfT did point out that the cost of the building is to be spread out over 15 or 16 years – £2bn a year has been earmarked for the construction. Over a 60-year period, the network will generate benefits with a net present value of £43.7bn.

And Transport Secretary Philip Hammond added: “I understand that this is a controversial project, particularly for many of those who live along the line of the route, but the Government’s job is to balance local objections against the national interest.”

Mr Hammond concedes that it’s a big project, but insists: “The cost will be spread over 15 years and we will generate more than £2 of direct benefits for every £1 of cost – as well as major strategic benefits to the wider economy.”

Cathy Newman’s verdict

In opposition, the Tories argued that high speed rail was essential because it removed the need for Heathrow expansion.

In government, they’ve abandoned that argument, saying instead that HS2 offers better connections and would boost economic growth.

That Ministers have jettisoned one of their key reasons for HS2 lends some credence to the view that this is a “vanity project”.

There is also much debate about whether the Government’s economic case for the new line actually adds up.

The Transport Secretary is however more convincing when he claims that new capacity is needed. The West Coast mainline is Britain’s busiest line. It was nearing capacity in 2000 and over the next nine years £9bn was spent on upgrading it. But National Rail says the line will once again be full by 2024. In the 15 years to 2009, passenger journeys on railways almost doubled (from a total of 18bn miles to 32bn miles).

Nobody wants to see Britain’s countryside destroyed, but the Government argues that improving the existing line instead of building a new one will do little to improve capacity – and much to irk commuters. The DfT says getting “radical” is the only way to address the chronic lack of capacity.