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Every so often Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins bile duct overflows and he releases a torrent of vituperative and bombastic nonsense about the HS2 rail project. He’s been doing this on a regular basis for years now. The fact he’s always proved spectacularly wrong and fact-free never stops him as the man clearly believes his own myths and is unashamed by the fact his fictional tirades never age well.

Crewe based blogger Tim Fenton has punctured Jenkins hot air balloon several times in the past. Notably here in 2014 and here in 2015. Sadly, the fact nowadays he’s in the fairy story business rather than real Journalism hasn’t stopped the Guardian publishing him. I’m assuming their Editor no longer cares about trivial things like facts and the truth as clicks are more important. The rubbish Jenkins writes are good enough to generate those as his rants against HS2 are guaranteed to be shared by the projects opponents – even ones whom aren’t natural Guardian readers! It’s a win for the Grauniad and a loss for those who like decent, factual journalism, analysis – and the truth.

Let’s have a look at Jenkins latest fact-free farrago shall we? I’d suggest wearing a peg on your nose whilst doing it as the smell of bullshit is overpowering. It’s entitled “Depleted and unwanted, HS2 hurtles on as Johnson’s £100bn vanity project” – which is a good start as that’s three untruths in the headline and we haven’t even got to the article yet! The first paragraph is no better…

“Britain’s new high-speed railway will not – repeat: not – get to the north of England. It will go back and forth from London to the Midlands and its chief beneficiaries will be London commuters. All else is political spin”

Really? Jenkins seems unaware that contracts for building HS2 Phase 2a from Birmingham to Crewe have already been let. Contractors have already started on preparatory work as Phase 2a gained Royal Assent on the 11th February 2021 after flying through both Houses of Parliament with a huge majority – just as Phase 1 did. Now, what was that about “unwanted”? HS2 has always commanded huge-cross party political support. So much so that the handful of opponents in the Lords didn’t even bother calling for a vote on the Phase 2a bill as they knew they were completely outnumbered.

Oh, and “London Commuters”? Hs2 is a long-distance railway. Like all other long-distance railways that means the vast majority of passengers will be leisure travellers, NOT commuters. The HS2 business case is based on 70% of travellers doing so for leisure. How can that be predicted? Easy, because we know who uses the existing Long-Distance services.

Meanwhile, Jenkins continues to dig a hole…

“This became certain last week as the government’s internal major projects authority declared phase two of the HS2 project, to Manchester and Leeds, effectively dead. While the already-started London-to-Birmingham stretch is still marked at “amber/red” for “successful delivery in doubt”, anything north of Crewe has been designated “unachievable”.

This is complete cobblers of course and will come as real news to people on the leg from Crewe to Manchester (and HS2 Ltd themselves) as the Government announced the timetable for the Phase 2b leg in the Queens Speech at the state opening of Parliament. The bill will be deposited in Parliament next year.

As for this amber/red and ‘unachievable’ nonsense, this is Jenkins failing to understand what the ratings (given by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority) actually mean. For example, we have two ‘unachievable’ Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers floating around right now that the IPA rated red. Oh, and the new Intercity Express Programme (IEP) trains built by Hitachi that are ploughing up and down the East Coast and Great Western main lines? They were rated ‘unachievable’ as well.

What’s next? Oh yes,

“Since HS2 has always been politics-driven – no rail strategy ever gave it priority”

This is more complete bollocks. The origins of HS2 are in several studies looking at the needs for future rail capacity that were carried out by the likes of Network Rail. In fact, it was this study. “Meeting the capacity challenge: The case for new lines” which was published by NR in 2009 that was the basis for HS2. It was the rail industry who established the need for HS2, not politicians.

Next?

“The only way of conveying the scale of Johnson’s vanity in this vanity project is to convey its opportunity cost, a projected £106bn (and rising) over 20 years.”

More cobblers. The cost of HS2 is not a ‘projected’ £106bn. Yet again Jenkins resorts to fiction as he’s just too idle and sure of himself to fact check but he’s not alone in filching figures from others without checking so I’ll cut him some slack. This number has been bandied around an awful lot in the media. That’s because the media is so incestuous as well as lazy. Nicking other people’s copy is endemic. It’s like Chinese whispers and ‘send three and fourpence, the General’s going to a dance’, an error’s circulated, magnified and becomes a ‘fact’. It’s claimed the £106bn is an ‘official’ figure because it was in the Oakervee Review of HS2. There’s just one teeny problem – the actual figure (£106.6bn) was mentioned in the review so that Oakervee could specifically dismiss it! Here’s a link to the Oakervee review. Here’s what Oakervee actually said.

Here’s what Oakervee ‘really’ said about the costs (there’s a range, not a single figure).

So, £80.7 – 87-7bn. Not figures you’ll see the press using as it’s not a single number that’s scary enough!

Jenkins then goes into the standard economic illiteracy about what spending funds for HS2 could do for the NHS, neatly showing he doesn’t understand the fact there’s no pot of money sat in the Treasury labelled ‘For HS2’ that’s waiting to rebadged, that he doesn’t know the difference between operational expenditure and capital expenditure, and thirdly, that Hs2’s funded by borrowing, not taxation. I’ve covered all those points in this blog in the past.

Continuing with his nonsensical claims, Jenkins than says;

“This one train line will consume the equivalent of Britain’s entire projected railway investment budget during its two decades of construction. Even the initial phase to Birmingham, at roughly £70bn, is twice the £40bn cost of the “northern powerhouse” rail system”

Firstly, Phase 1 is budgeted at £40-43bn (see above) £70bn is a number Jenkins has invented. Secondly, No-one knows that the UKs projected rail budget is for the next 20 years as it’s not set that far in advance. Network Rail’s budget is set in 5 year periods, known as ‘Control Periods’. The current one (CP6) runs from 2019-2024. That was set at 47bn. Of course the line between maintenance and ‘investment’ is blurred. For example, is replacing life-expired signalling with an upgraded system maintenance or investment? Here’s a link to the Department of transport’s budget 2019-2020. It makes it clear that the amount spent on Hs2 is dwarfed by what’s spent on the existing national rail network.

Oh, and that doesn’t include what others (like the Welsh and Scottish Governments, or train builders) invest in the railways either. Jenkin’s claim is simply more spherical objects..

Jenkin’s diatribe of nonsense continues with this tosh.

“Meanwhile arguments continue over the trains themselves. They are not planned to tilt, which means that any time saved on a new track to Birmingham will be lost on winding track further north. A re-signalled King’s Cross line could even get to Scotland faster. HS2 is more a taxpayer-funded theme park ride”.

*Sigh*. Where to start on this rubbish? 1. HS2’s already being built North of Birmingham to Crewe. 2. The trains don’t need to tilt to keep time as the new Hitachi Class 802s operated by Transpennine Express have already proved, (technology has moved on) plus Network Rail are proposing some track upgrades on the route to Scotland anyway. 3. Re-signalling The East Coast won’t speed it up in any meaningful way as you’d need to close all the level and foot crossings which would cost a fortune and you still wouldn’t get HS2 speed – plus – you’d devastate capacity on the route by running faster trains! This crucial factor is missed by armchair experts like Jenkins. Speed up trains on the existing main lines which are already overflowing with services and you reduce capacity as slower trains have to be ditched from the timetable to leave room for the faster ones. It’s the raison d’être for HS2, by removing those non-stop high-speed services you free up large chunks of capacity on the existing network. Jenkins ignores that crucial point because it doesn’t fit his narrative. As for the final tosh about ‘taxpayer funded’ – we’ve been over this until we’re blue in the face. HS2 is funded by borrowing against future GDP increases, not taxation!

Jenkin’s continues with his ‘vanity project’ tosh with this statement;

“What is intriguing is how HS2 has mutated from from a transport project to political machismo – “infrastructure” that is good in itself.”

Trying to label HS2 as a ‘Johnson’ project simply won’t wash – because by the time HS2 opens Johnson (hopefully) will be long gone. HS2’s been in development for over 11 years. In that time we’ve had Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Teresa May and Boris Johnson premierships. The project was kicked off by a Labour Government, taken forward by a Coalition Government and now construction’s started under a Tory Government. It’s hard to think of many schemes as apolitical as HS2. By the time the whole project’s completed that will be nearer 25 years. Who know who’ll be the Prime Minister cutting the tape when the first phase opens in 2029!

Jenkin’s final canard is this, the old “Hs2 is stealing your investment money”

“(Andy Burnham) will now find Birmingham blessed with cash that might have renovated his dire northern powerhouse rail network three times over – money he may now never see”

Playing regional mayors off against each other I see. It won’t wash. That money comes from Whitehall anyway. They make the investment choices as funding powers and budgets haven’t been devolved by the Government – much to the North’s annoyance – and that’s not exclusively to do with Burnham either. The Government set up Transport for the North but didn’t give it control of its budget. This is a Government decision but it’s nothing to do with HS2 which has a separate funding stream. Still, facts eh? You’ll never get ’em from Jenkins!

No doubt Jenkins latest pile of cobblers will keep the Grauniad happy as it’s done it’s job creating clicks and comments. It won’t stop HS2 in the slightest of course, the only effect it will have in the long term is to continue the downwards trajectory of the reputation of English journalism. Next time you see a Jenkins article on HS2, save yourself some time and file it straight in the bin…

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