Feature: Will High Speed 2 end up derailed?

It's going to take 20 years to finish and cost the taxpayer an eye-watering £32 billion. No wonder the government's High Speed Rail 2 (HS2) project has plenty of advocates – and enemies.

This kind of timescale dwarfs even the government's aviation strategy agonies. Under the coalition's plan – and this is subject to delays, of course – it won't be until 2032/33 that the Y-shaped network is opened in full. Passengers will be able to whoosh up and down from London to Birmingham at speeds of up to 250mph from 2026. It will then take another seven years or so before the network is extended along two branches: one heading up to Manchester, the other to Sheffield and Leeds.

The politics of HS2 is not straightforward. For a start the opposition does not oppose it; this was New Labour's brainchild. The "spadework", as shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle says, was done by Andrew Adonis. After Labour lost the general election she reviewed the proposals and decided to back it. "It's going to be good for the whole country, not just those living between London and Birmingham," she says. On this the government agrees. It estimates benefits of £47 billion and fare revenues of up to £34 billion. An impressive return, even if it will take 60 years for this amount to rack up.

Everything about the size of this sort of national infrastructure project is a bit overwhelming. But size has its downsides. That £47 billion figure is actually the lower end of an estimate that ranges as high as £59 billion. Quite a difference. This is because predicting the actual economic benefits of the project – a fundamental part of the cost-benefit calculation – is far from an exact science. One of HS2's biggest problems is scepticism from some quarters that these intangible benefits will actually be realised.

The debate boils down to a 'jobs vs lawns' tussle: will the long-term needs of the British economy win out against the desire by those who are directly affected to preserve their property? The lobbyists have come up with an extremely effective negative word for those opposing this sort of project. They are the nimbys – the 'not in my back yards'.

Steve Baker is a Conservative MP who sits on the Commons' transport committee. "The homes we're talking about are people's life's work," he points out. Those who speak "contemptuously" about their views are being unfair: at risk is "a beautiful place in the country" where a railway will be built "that's being forced on them". He says the benefits the government makes such a big deal of are "increasingly futile".

Eagle says she would never use the word 'nimby' as it's obviously derogatory. But she doesn't think HS2's opponents should be allowed to block the scheme. "I can well understand how people severely affected by this would want to object in the strongest possible terms," she says, "but you can't do a big infrastructure project like this without somebody being affected."

Nikki Sinclaire is an independent MEP for the West Midlands who is perfectly happy being labelled a 'nimby'. "If someone had to give up some of their lawns for a hospital to be built – one specialising in a unique area of medicine that is desperately needed – I think people would say 'OK'," she says. "HS2 is different – the case just hasn't been made."

Sinclaire says the arguments that it will bring billions of pounds of business just don't hold water. "Would you buy a car from 30 years ago? We don't know where we are going to be in 30 years' time. Communications are developing at such a speed, Britain's becoming a much smaller place. You don't necessarily need to meet someone face to face to do business."

One benefit HS2 will definitely bring is an improvement in capacity. It will provide an extra 26,000 seats for rail passengers every hour and attract passengers off existing rail lines, roads and domestic air services. More freight could be transported via rail as a result. This is the "main benefit", according to Alan Francis, the Green party's transport spokesperson. "The M1 is just a convoy for lorries," he says. "Most of those ought to be on trains."

Francis, with refreshing candour, admits that his party is a "bit split on this". He explains: "The official line is we support the principle of a high speed rail link from the north to the south, but that we have objections to the specific proposal that's on the table at the moment."

Top of the Greens' concerns, as you'd expect, is the environmental impact of the proposals. Rail is generally better than other transport options, but HS2 is striking a balance towards speed and away from low emissions. "The higher the speed the more energy the trains consume," Francis says. He would rather HS2 trains travel at 300 kilometres per hour, the same speed as HS1 (the high-speed channel tunnel link). HS2 trains are slated for 400 kilometres per hour. "The design speed affects the planning of it. It means the curves have to be a bigger radius, which constrains much more fitting it into the landscape. A lower line speed allows it to be that bit more flexible."

Wrangling over the exact route the line will take is the trench warfare of HS2, far removed from the grand strategy of the overall merits of the scheme. A lot of controversy has already been dealt with thanks to the decision to put much of the route as it passes through the Chilterns in tunnels or cuttings. This is where most of the anti-HS2 groupings are based, but in terms of the number of houses affected the biggest impact is in Camden, around Euston, where around 300 properties would be demolished.

The Department for Transport likes to make a big deal of its compensation measures. "The impacts on property are some of the most direct and personal effects of HS2," then transport secretary Justine Greening said early in 2012. "This is why we have committed to going above and beyond the statutory requirements for property compensation."

Whatever the government eventually comes up with is unlikely to go far enough for those prepared to think radically about compensation. "People are not incentivised to say yes," Baker complains. He offers a hypothetical example of some playing fields in his constituency next to an existing residential area, where developers want to build 1,000 houses. Of course they'd oppose this. "So if they said 'we appreciate it's going to irritate you so we're going to widen the road and put traffic lights on that junction, and ten per cent of the net profit from it will be split among the residents in a quarter of a mile radius – we think that amounts to £200,000 each' – that is compensation."

Sinclaire, who used to be a Ukip MEP, says she is "amazed" the Conservatives took on the project, as it is so reminiscent of "big government". Baker, a free market Tory, is deeply sceptical about the whole set-up of rail subsidies provided by the taxpayer. He compares it to the "German pattern of socialism" – nominal private ownership of the means of production, but with companies which are so hampered by regulation as to make their private ownership irrelevant. Profits are directed by the franchise agreements, reflecting a hybrid system which is neither socialism nor free market. "You don't end up with profits which represent people's rational voluntary choices about where they would like to direct their money," he says. "The whole profit motive is massively distorted by political action."

There are broader questions at stake here, too. Little-used railway lines are heavily subsidised by the taxpayer. This is something Baker is less than impressed by, but the Greens are very keen on this. They would prefer the government to focus on encouraging people to use the railway for more local journeys, rather than concentrating on massive infrastructure dreams. "What we need is something which integrates the various transport modes – an overall policy," Francis says.

With the decision on a third runway at Heathrow now deferred until after the 2015 general election, that isn't going to happen. Nor is HS2's future completely secure. Legal challenges to the government's consultation, concerns over the hybrid nature of the legislation (this means it takes much longer to work its way through parliament) and the coalition's decision to split the legislation into two parts are worrying interested spectators – like Labour's Eagle.

"It's progressing much slower than it ought to," she warns. Labour would rather the line gets built from both ends. "That enables you to give a boost to infrastructure spending in the north as well as the south. All the northern cities think it would stimulate economic development."

So long as Britain's economy continues to struggle, it's likely that 'jobs' will trump 'lawns'. Nothing is certain, though. A week is a long time in politics – and 2033 feels light years away.