03 February 2013

A speedy recovery

Through the recent icy weather people have been able to keep themselves warm by harnessing the cubic metres of hot air being released over HS2. For those not familiar with the hot topics of British infrastructure planning, this is the sequel to HS1, a high-speed rail line connecting London to Birmingham, that, like a teenage delinquent, needs somewhere else to be moved on to once it reaches the midlands. So this week HS2's twin paths to the east and west of northern England were announced to the usual cries of joy and disdain from the NIMBYs and YIMBYs who believe they will lose or gain from its proximity.

To bolster its case as a piece of strategic thinking, and not merely jam tomorrow from a government desperate both to look visionary and to be seen to be investing in infrastructure projects, all sorts of projections of wealth generation are being cast about like fishing lines. These sort of calculations are speculative at best - not so much back-of-an-envelope as back-to-the-future, as we are betting a £33billion farm on a time we cannot see: no-one will actually be able to experience signal failure at Toton until at least 2033. But that hasn't stopped HS2 itself (which seems to exist as an independent entity, with its own website) reckoning it will generate £47 billion in user benefits to businesses when the entire network is completed, as well as between £6 billion and £12 billion in wider economic benefits. And all this from the ability to get from London to Birmingham 30 minutes quicker.

We've become used to spurious economic externalities being blamed for downturns in recent years: royal weddings, snow days, hot days, cold days, bank holidays, sick days, all of which make the difference between businesses staying afloat or going bust, it would seem. But the prospect of an economic boom coming on the back of the next generation getting to Brum 30 minutes sooner seems generous at best. What can you do with an extra half an hour - have a piano lesson? Are we going to rebuild our flagging economy by cramming in extra piano lessons in the time we saved not being slumped dribbling on the 08.45 out of Euston?

Recently I've taken to cycling to my local train station rather than driving - it saves money and gives me exercise, though it does add probably half an hour to my commute. I worry that, given the apparent solid link between time and money confidently predicted by HS2 that I am now contributing to the economic malaise in the country. How much more money would I make for UK plc if I drove? Better still, I could take a helicopter and be in London in half an hour. If the price of the recovery is simply getting somewhere else a bit quicker, why aren't they laying on 12 trains an hour, 24 hours a day across the country?

My second doubt about these predictions is the same as my doubts about any soothsayer or, god forbid, "futurologist". In 1993, who was predicting that by now you could do a week's grocery shopping and tape your favourite TV show from a telephone you could carry around with you while you waited for the train? No one could even see the future of the tablet market 6 years ago, never mind 26 years ago. My son's headmaster reckons that, by the time he graduates from university, around 25% of the jobs he could do wouldn't have existed before he started his first day at school.

When I was younger, I went to Portsmouth to look around HMS Warrior, the less glamorous younger sibling to Nelson's flagship. It is perhaps the best-preserved example of an Ironclad Ship, the successor to the ordinary, and very penetrable, wooden war vessel. Within a few years of its completion, it was completely obsolete, as full iron ships showed counter-intuitively that metal that floats was the future. Ironclad was definitely the future until we saw it was just a bridge to something else, with the wisdom of our hindsight. Similarly, I can't help thinking that, in twenty years time, when we'll all have hoverboards AND jet-packs, plus dinner in pill form, the idea that we would want to get to Birmingham any quicker than we had to might seem a curious one.

And in 100 years, my great, great grandchildren will take school trips to visit HS2 like I went to see Warrior, to marvel at the uncertainty of betting on a sure thing.