I’m not talking about Crossrail, part 2

(… continued from I’m not talking about Crossrail, part 1, posted on 14 Dec 2013).

In this blog I will continue my report of Emily Maitlis’ interview of Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin that was included in the Newsnight programme aired on BBC TV on 29th October 2013.

Despite the clear indication that she had received from her opening questions that Mr McLoughlin was not prepared to engage in a discussion about the nuts and bolts of his newly-published “strategic case” for HS2, she ploughed on:

Emily Maitlis: I’m just questioning how you’ve arrived at the figures that you’ve arrived at today. For example, we are now looking at the benefits to business leaping from £25.2bn to £40.5bn; how does that work out?

Patrick McLoughlin: Well it works out because it’s what we are told, and the way in which the economic case is worked out on, so that is a point …

Emily Maitlis: What do you mean, “the way we’ve been told, and the way the case is worked out on”? How does it leap from £25.2bn to £40.5bn?

Patrick McLoughlin: Because there is new information that comes into being, and that is passed into the overall figures and the overall case.

I am fairly sure that Ms Maitlis’ increasing incredulity, apparent in the video (see footnote), is genuine. After all she was being fobbed off in a fairly pathetic way by the Minister, whose unease with this line of questioning is all too obvious by his hesitancy and his facial expressions. Either he had been inadequately briefed to address her questions, or he was unwilling to risk giving a hostage to fortune by mounting a defence. Surely, he and his advisors should have expected that the interview would take as its subject the document that had been published by the Government that very day? However, to her credit, Ms Maitlis was not going to give up:

Emily Maitlis: What sort of new information? I mean these were wrong last time; you’ve published figures today saying that they’re going from £25bn to £40bn.

Patrick McLoughlin: They weren’t wrong last time. They were figures that were published; we have done more work on it, which was what we were asked to do by the Public Accounts Committee. These are important matters. What I’ve also got to do, as far as the Transport Secretary is concerned, is actually look at what is the benefit for the North. So I’ve just come from a meeting of the Chamber of Commerce in Manchester – they tell me how very important the high speed line is for them.

What the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said Minster was that the previous business case was “based on fragile numbers, out-of-date data and assumptions which do not reflect real life”; I think that one might be justified in concluding that they thought that the figures were “wrong” (see paragraph 3 in the Conclusions and recommendations section of the PAC report).

The Minister’s feeble attempt to divert the interview away from the figures in the new strategic case towards “benefit for the North”, did not deter Ms Maitlis, she merely took a slightly-different tack.

“This is predicated on an incredibly-optimistic forecast in growth on this route. Now, if we look back to what happened on HS1, the forecasts were far too high – there was a 30% over-estimation – so why don’t you just say that you don’t actually know what is going happen to the route, in terms of the number of people travelling? Why would you make a forecast that ties you into these kind of numbers that people are not believing any more?”

Come on Emily, I think that you know the answer to that one; if they relied on realistic forecasts the economic case would be blown apart. Unsurprisingly, the Transport Secretary did not confess this in his reply:

“Well you say that they’re, ‘not believing’. The CBI today have welcomed the case that we have published, the Chamber of Commerce have welcomed the case that we are publishing …”

And what about the Institute of Directors, Minister (see my blog They haven’t been twiddling their thumbs, part 2, posted 10 Dec 2013)? Ms Maitlis also had her own evidence about the view of business to submit to the Minister:

Emily Maitlis: And the FTSE 100 business leader’s poll says that 49% of those who responded are against HS2; they don’t see a credible need for it any more.

Patrick McLoughlin: Well if you’re saying that 49% are against …

Well I think that we can all venture a good guess what he was going to say next, and Ms Maitlis saw it coming also:

Emily Maitlis: Thirty-three. Thirty-three are in favour … and that has fallen, that’s the point. It has fallen over the last year.

Patrick McLoughlin: Well the truth is that big infrastructure projects are always controversial until they are built. When they are built, people say that they were the right thing to do. The same arguments were made about the M40, about the M25. People were opposed to those, but they are actually very important parts of the infrastructure of our country. I’ve just come from a meeting with the Chamber of Commerce and what they were telling me is that this is important for Manchester.

Yes you’ve already told us how important HS2 is to Manchester. I’m really not sure that, if HS2 is built, the consensus will be that it was “the right thing to do”. HS2 appears to be in a class of its own when it comes to controversy; the majority are just not convinced that it is something that this country needs. Even Lord Mandelson, who was one of the midwives present at HS2’s birth, now regards HS2 as a “political trophy project justified on flimsy evidence to be about modernity and prosperity”. His frank admission as to why Labour embraced the project just before the 2010 general election does not give confidence that it was the right thing to do:

“We didn’t feel like being trumped by the then opposition’s support for the high-speed train. We wanted, if anything, to upstage them.”

(To be concluded …)

Footnote: Emily Maitlis’ interview with the Transport Secretary begins at 9min 10secs into the video.


3 responses to this post.

  1. Peter, I think the most revealing comment from the TS is “Well it works out because it’s what we are told”. Ministers rely on their officials for advice and information. Their officials let them down over the West Coast franchise and they have let them down on a vastly bigger scale over HS2. Ministers have got themselves so locked in to HS2 that they can’t afford to admit it’s a mistake. Their only way out is to switch to an alternative that really is worth building. That is the route following M1 that I told you about. It’s better because it will connect twice as many places together, have half as much tunnel and cost less, do much less environmental damage and cause less opposition from neighbours, and come into use sooner by incremental development. It will be published shortly. And to reassure you that I have an open mind, I would gladly concede there is no need to build it if passenger numbers do not continue to increase. Given the government forecasts of population increase, the need will almost certainly arise sooner or later, and it takes decades to get anything of this scale built, so it right to plan for the likely need.


    • Thanks Les, but I think that you are giving the Secretary of State too much benefit of the doubt.It is the function of ministers not to blindly accept what they are told by civil servants, but to ask penetrating questions of them. It is also surely not too much to expect that a minister should be on top of his brief and be able to answer questions on his department’s publications.
      On the alternative route that you are about to launch, I wish you all power to your elbow. I have frequently heard Ministers, Lords and MPs claim that the opponents of HS2 have suggested no alternative way forward. This is, of course, untrue, but your M1 route should be certain proof that the claim is unwarranted. May I suggest that you consider making your proposal the subject of one or more petitions against the hybrid Bill, as I understand that there is no reason why a petition should not propose an alternative route. You will of course have to find one or more individuals or organisations likely to have locus standi to submit the petition(s).


  2. Posted by chriseaglen on December 18, 2013 at 9:10 pm

    Peter you can be such a person with locus standii as can Mr Fabricant. Route 3 phase 1 was not through populated areas and the 2 track railway is not viable for 20 trains per hour which would be more with commuter Javelin.

    How can MPs have exposed their lackings in this debate and fallen along the way leaving the face saving barrier more than ever. Leadership will be standing down Phase 1 Route 3 but possibly on lack of investment for one national sector at the rising £50B. Unfortunately Labour front row is more defensive and desparately trying to not split from the Coalition. Large scale infrastructure has crashed with political popularity searching which has not worked. The front rows are now being harassed by some thinking MPs who will grow in voice in the next year. The knockabout in the interview is not useful because neither of the two knew sufficient. There have been several alternatives but the HS2 and DFT have not known how to handle these because it conflicted with the CEO of HS2’s aim to avoid what is referred to a Kent wide blight, a secondary issue now the Environmental Statements contain such large acreages of pink shaded areas in Map Book Volume 2 CFA xxxx.


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