Opponents and supporters of high speed rail are fighting a bitter war of attrition in a propaganda battle over the most significant public transport plan for a generation, reports Public Affairs Correspondent Paul Dale.

On the face of it, the facts appear to be straight forward.

The Department for Transport is proposing to build Britains second high speed rail route, initially from London Euston to a new station in Birmingham, and eventually onwards with a Y-shaped track extending to Manchester and Leeds.

The cost of building the London-Birmingham line is estimated at just over s17 billion, with an opening date of 2026. Constructing the entire Y-shaped track would cost s33 billion at todays prices.

Running costs over 60 years would be s44 billion, less s27 billion from estimated fares revenue, leaving a net cost of s17 billion.

So far, so simple. Except that nothing, absolutely nothing, is simple or indeed unchallenged in the HS2 debate.

The cost is an obvious bone of contention. Since when did any UK public transport project come in on budget and why is the Government determined to invest so much when widespread public spending cuts are the order of the day?

Popular opinion has it that most HS2 opponents are the super-wealthy from Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire villages close to the proposed route for the 225 mph trains the well-heeled Squirearchy, as Birmingham Airports director of government Affairs, John Morris put it.

And while it is true that a highly organised and well-funded campaign has sprung up in the Home Counties, opposition is also strong in Warwickshire, Staffordshire, Coventry and even Worcestershire, where many people see little benefit for themselves from a high speed rail service where trains stop only at Birmingham Airport and Birmingham city centre.

Lobby group HS2AA, an alliance of anti-high speed rail organisations, is challenging almost every aspect of the DfTs business case which, it says is deeply flawed.

Jerry Marshall, chairman of Action Groups Against High Speed Two (AGAHST) claims that the actual net benefit return for Government investment in HS2 is a miserly 30p in the pound rather than the s1.60 claimed by the DfT. He points out, somewhat gleefully, that even the DfT started with a far higher figure of s2.40 but was forced to scale down when the original calculations were shown to be over-optimistic.

The 30p figure, it should be noted, has been calculated by HS2AA. As ever with this debate, it depends on estimates of how many people will use HS2.

Mr Marshall says DfT forecasts that demand for long distance rail travel bear no relation to past experience.

He contends that figures produced by Birmingham City Council and Centro, claiming that 54,000 people a day will use HS2 services from Eastside and Birmingham Airport are ridiculous.

Mr Marshall adds: Birminghams population is about one million, including children and retired people. So in effect, Centro is proposing that the equivalent of one in 20 of the entire population of Birmingham would be users of HS2, engaged in a 200-mile round trip commute.

He points out that, since HS2 trains will carry a maximum 1,100 passengers, the 54,000 figure represents about 49 completely full trains a day a far higher figure, he says, than anything achieved on any high speed rail line in Europe.

Mr Marshall added: Our analysis raises the question of whether the DfT are deliberately using misleading assumptions and an out-of-date model to shore up a business case that would otherwise collapse.

New projections mean that the case for HS2 in value for money terms is at least a third worse than was originally predicted in March 2010.

HS2AA director Bruce Weston sums it up: HS2 is set to give a colossally poor return on investment. When you re-do the DFTs sums using realistic methodologies the taxpayer gets back just 30 pence for every pound spent on Phase 1 and 40p in the pound for the full Y network.

Even if you include the wider economic impacts the return only rises to a 50p return in the pound for Phase 1 and 60p for the full Y.

It simply does not make sense to spend over s30 billion pounds on HS2 when alternatives, identified by DfT themselves, would deliver a better, cheaper and greener solution and one that can meet the required capacity.

As well as arguing about passenger forecasts and estimated costs, HS2 opponents also doubt the Governments claim that high speed rail will be of huge benefit to the Birmingham and West Midlands economy, sucking in billions of pounds worth of inward investment and creating hundreds of jobs.

North Warwickshire Tory MP Dan Byles told a Commons debate that the opposite would be the case, with the 49-minute journey time between Birmingham and London turning the West Midlands into a huge dormitory region for the capital.

He highlighted economic analysis by the University of Barcelona of high speed rail systems in France, Spain, Germany, Italy and Japan, which he said showed that economic activity was prone to drain away from regional cities like Birmingham towards capital cities like London.

Mr Byles said: Clearly there are questions to be answered over the business case, and more research needs to be done into the economic effect that high speed rail systems have had in other countries in Europe.

The Commons Business Select Committee is to hold an inquiry into the economic case for HS2, a development that has convinced high speed rail supporters that they must do far more to put their case over.

Birmingham City Council chief executive Stephen Hughes is emerging as a key driver behind the HS2 case, and has been urging fellow council bosses along the planned route to be outspoken in support.

He fears that the No campaigns flying start could prove decisive and that high speed rail might fall by the wayside because of apathy among its largely silent supporters.

Mr Hughes has spoken of the gains for the local economy if Birmingham becomes a suburb of London. Far from a brain drain, he envisages the over-heated South-east economy shifting jobs to Birmingham where office and land rentals are cheaper.

He expects significant investment to take place around Curzon Street, the location at Eastside for a HS2 terminal, helped by a Government commitment for tax breaks to encourage new businesses to set up.

The Campaign for High Speed Rail, a new umbrella group whose members include business leaders, academics and transport experts, hit out at a misleading report by the TaxPayersAlliance which described HS2 as a waste of money.

It points to a study by accountants KPMG which estimates the HS2 network could boost the economy by between s17 billion and s29 billion by 2040, and increase national economic output by 2.1 per cent. The study predicts high speed rail could create between 25,000 and 42,000 additional jobs as a result of more productive businesses offering higher wages.

Campaign director Professor David Begg said: The TPAs flawed report is based on heroic assumptions about a future with no further railway investment, something that no Government has ever suggested.

It massively under-estimates the ongoing growth in railway traffic among business people and families and the need to build new capacity.

It seems strange to employers in the Midlands and the North that an organisation that essentially supports business is taking so much effort to attack a much-needed national investment which will help create jobs, particularly in areas where businesses struggle to stay ahead.

The fact is that in an age of international competition businesses depend on quick, reliable, efficient transport to reach new markets and service customers. Right now, those in the Midlands and the North are being let down by Britains train system.

Prof Begg says HS2 opponents are naive when they suggest it would be better to improve the West Coat Main Line than build a high speed track.

He added: Developing an entirely new line requires far less upheaval than upgrading the entire WCML.

The last West Coast modernisation cost s8.9 billion and took almost a decade an experience many business people and families found highly disruptive and would not like to revisit.

Critically, a separate high speed system will allow the segregation of fast and slow services, increasing capacity across the network as a whole.

Meanwhile, the Government has begun to emphasise the positive impact HS2 will have on freeing up capacity on existing rail lines.

Services from Rugby to London would increase from 28 a day to 35 a day while services from Lichfield to London would increase from 15 a day to 27, according to the Department for Transport.

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