The case for a complete rethink of transport priorities in the aftermath of Covid-19 – including a fresh look at arguments for and against the HS2 high speed rail line – is to be the subject of a major parliamentary inquiry beginning this week.
The pandemic has led to a dramatic fall in commuting into towns and cities, as well as a national financial crisis highlighted last Wednesday by the chancellor Rishi Sunak in his spending review. Pressure to reduce carbon emissions is also raising questions about the desirability of the £27bn road-building programme.
The issues will be central to an investigation entitled “Reforming public transport after the pandemic” by the all-party parliamentary select committee on transport which will begin taking evidence on Wednesday.
The committee’s Tory chairman Huw Merriman told the Observer that the pandemic had led to big changes in behaviour and attitudes to work, commuting and lifestyles that could have a permanent impact on demand for different types of public transport.
“Transport investment is at a pivotal moment. The pandemic has changed the way we travel,” Merriman said. “For meaningful numbers of us, it could change it for good. Our climate change commitments require us to shift away from diesel towards greener forms of energy. Changes to the way we appraise capital spending projects mean that the government no longer has to use value for money as the sole indicator.
“With so much uncertainty, pressing the accelerator too early could lead to vast transport infrastructure projects which are either not needed or are sited in the wrong parts of the country to level up.”
But he added that delaying big projects could also have economic costs. “The danger in putting the brakes on is that a ‘wait and see’ policy could starve the economy of a vital and immediate capital stimulus and lead to a loss of our skills base and supply chain – all for technology advances which never arrive and a pandemic which ended and saw commuters return to the office. It is absolutely vital that the government builds nimbleness into projects in order to keep up with the changes in consumer behaviour and technological advances.”
While Boris Johnson gave the go-ahead to the construction of HS2 between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds in February, weeks before the first Covid-19 lockdown, the increase in the number of people working from home and holding meetings remotely has caused opponents to questions its worth again.
Last night the former Tory cabinet minister David Lidington, a long-time opponent of HS2, said Covid-19 would almost certainly have cut the projected increase in business travel which was a major reason for building the line. It had, he believed, also created a greater “public reluctance” to cram on to trains to get to work that was likely to last some time.
“These factors suggest that there is likely to be a fairly considerable drop in the demand for business travel between cities compared to the modelling that the department [for transport] had been using. It is likely that the case for an increase in passenger numbers is a lot weaker now than it is was. Are people in government looking at this now? They should be. The Treasury has always been very sceptical about HS2.” A report by the House of Lords’ economic committee in 2015 concluded that the case for HS2 was “heavily dependent” on increased business travel.
Among those giving evidence to the select committee this week will be the transport expert Stephen Joseph, now a visiting professor at the university of Hertfordshire. Joseph said: “Changes in travel during the pandemic have thrown previous transport patterns and ways of thinking up in the air, and the government needs to recognise this.
“Some of this may be temporary, but city centre office workers are unlikely to go back to 9 to 5, five-day-a-week commuting. Many business meetings can work better and more efficiently online. From now on we might see more flexible working, in local hubs and centres as well as at home, with more local travel. The risk is of a car-led recovery, which we are seeing now – that will generate congestion in cities, towns and villages and also isn’t compatible with decarbonisation, where transport is the biggest source.”
Andrew Adonis, the former Labour transport secretary and leading enthusiast for HS2 said the case for pressing ahead with the entire scheme would remain strong despite the pandemic.
He said: “I doubt long-term public transport demand will be much affected by Covid-19. Even in the short window between the two lockdowns, passenger numbers shot up quickly. Conceivably it will return to say 90% of former passenger demand, with more home-working. But even a 10% difference on current passenger numbers doesn’t affect freight demand, and changes in population levels and immigration are the biggest factors driving transport demand, where the trends are sharply upwards not downwards.”