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Alex Deane: the non-high speed case for (and against) HS2

Choo choo I’ve yet to make up my mind on HS2, but it seems to me that whatever one’s view of it, the scheme needs to be discussed on the relevant points, rather than irrelevant ones. I’m afraid to say that I don’t think that’s been happening thus far, and that’s bad for both sides. Here’s my humble attempt to set out what I think are the real issues.

High speed rail should be an ad man’s dream. We love railways in this country. And we always moan about the pace of them. We’ve been left behind by – well, by everybody – in building them, so genuine investment in them should be impressive. But by God, the job’s been botched. Somehow, the champions of HS2 have managed to turn high speed rail into something akin to a curse in middle England. That’s because two bad arguments were used – speed and the environment – rather than two good arguments – capacity and economic growth.

Not speed, but capacity

First, speed: there’s really no need to build a whole new line to help people to get to Birmingham a few minutes more quickly, lovely though that city is. Trains might indeed be capable of getting from A to B a bit more quickly with the new line, but that definitely isn’t the point – the point is capacity. The real supposed benefits are a timetable that is no longer a fantasy but a reality, smaller delays because fast trains aren’t stuck behind slow ones and more train services per se because there’s another line. The West Coast mainline, which (alone) links all of our largest conurbations, is full and apparently demand is set to increase. The new line takes fast trains off that line. The freight and suburban trains that currently use that line will be able to move more freely, and there will be more of them. They will no longer interfere with the passage of fast trains, which is a royal pain for any traveller (as one’s fast train gets stuck behind freight). Fast trains on the new line will not just take pressure off them and provide new capacity – commuters into London currently find that it’s often standing room only on the routes in from Milton Keynes and Northamptonshire. Enhancements to allow more carriages on long distance services or shrinking first class are sticking plasters when surgery’s needed: tinkering with existing infrastructure results in disruption and only buys a little more time before the same mind-numbingly irritating shortcomings of travel in the UK re-emerge. An additional line will provide the space needed on existing lines for extra suburban services before, like on London's wretched and disgusting tube, commuters find that they can’t even get on the train during the morning commute. 

Not the environment, but economic growth

The government has claimed that HS2 is good for the environment. Like most new major infrastructure projects, it ain’t so – or not hugely so, at least. HS2’s champions have absurdly claimed that the line will lead to fewer flights, suggesting that is a reasonable alternative to expansion at Heathrow, which is crackers – people don’t fly to Brum from Heathrow, they fly abroad. The number of flights from the UK won’t go down one bit: everyone saw through this straight away and it’s undermined the case for HS2 from the beginning. Actually, their case is not quite as stupid as that, as the precise claim is that HS2 makes it easier to get to Birmingham Airport from the south, but that’s still pretty stupid, because nobody will do that.

On the other hand, the move holds the potential for major economic growth. Freight will run more smoothly and predictably on the existing line, which is good for business, and more of it can be carried – even better (so I suppose that this is good for the environment, after all – it will get some lorries off the roads). Currently, our rail infrastructure can’t keep pace with the growth in demand from industry and supermarkets for transporting goods by rail. A new line meets existing and future demand.

There are real arguments to be made against the scheme, of course. It takes up people’s land – no small issue. And it’s expensive – one might wonder if this is the right time to use lots of public money on a shiny new project (although, even if ultimately it’s the wrong time, I’d think that long term investment with potential growth as a reward is at least more warranted and advisable than increases in general public spending as under the last government, who demonstrated that you can barf as much additional public money as you like on the NHS without improved results, for example). That argument is bolstered by the fact that we simultaneously have the highest rail fares in Europe, and the highest level of public rail subsidy.

All in all, as I say, I haven’t made up my mind, and I definitely think that there are some faults in the plan. If the scheme goes ahead, in my view not only should the planners change the current choice of terminus at Euston (which has been totally and appallingly trashed in recent times already); I wouldn’t put it in central London at all. Avoiding that would massively cut the cost and the thumping disruption, a la Crossrail, and save the government some embarrassment to boot. But that’s almost beside the point for present purposes. I just think that HS2 should be discussed on the real points, rather than the false ones. 


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