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The train now departing

The government seems determined to push through the HS2 high-speed rail line, no matter what.

This bizarre obsession with a grandiose scheme costing £50 billion, that will cause untold misery and inconvenience to thousands of people for the next fifteen years, is defended with extraordinary illogicality.

For instance, it is argued that it will solve problems of capacity on the existing network. How, exactly, will a new railway line built between London and Birmingham increase capacity on the lines to Swansea, Penzance or Norwich? Let alone on the lines where the worst capacity problems are experienced, the cattle-truck commuter services in the Southeast?

Will it not simply deliver more passengers onto trains departing from Birmingham to onward destinations, thus worsening capacity problems in the Midlands?

And how, exactly, will a line that stops at Birmingham create economic growth in the North of England – forgetting that the Southwest and Wales are also among the worst-performing, most underinvested parts of the country? Birmingham is not in the North, although I suspect few London-based politicians know that. But it is already the second wealthiest city, after London.

The aim is to extend the line to Manchester and Leeds sometime in the 2030s, but a lot can change by then. My bet is that the line won’t get beyond Birmingham, the northerly legs will be cancelled owing to rising costs. Would it not make more sense, if Northern regeneration is the aim, to start the new line at Leeds and work southwards?

And is there not in any case an argument that says the line is just as, or even more more likely to deliver additional prosperity to the South as to the North? The money following the money, as it were? Unless, that is, the service is only one-way. But it is hard to see exactly what prosperity is being talked about, and how it will be delivered. The evidence of the worldwide development of railways in the Victorian period is that prosperity may blossom around the railhead, but it is bled from communities not served by the line.

Then there is a simple point to be made about priorities. There are already adequate rail services between the various destinations proposed for HS2. To disparage them as ‘Victorian’ is disingenuous: the routes may have been laid down in the C19th, but the lines, the rolling stock and the stations — the ticket prices — are modern and could, given a fraction of the cost of HS2, be made more so.

Thanks in part to the Beeching cuts, other parts of the country are not connected to the rail network at all. Should these not be served first, and the network upgraded, before the national profit for the next fifteen years is expended on this one project, massively greedy for money and land? Should we not be focussing on high-speed broadband as a deliverer of future prosperity, rather than on wasteful physical travel?

HS2 will doubtless end up as the ‘first-class’ business service and have little to do with transporting ordinary people. It’s easy to envisage a ticket costing £200, great for MPs and business executives, local authority bigwigs and NHS managers rushing between conferences on taxpayer-funded expenses. The ordinary traveller living at either end, hoping to visit relatives or attend job interviews or go Christmas shopping or get to far-flung airports will be shunted onto the existing ‘slow line’, a third-class service for a third-class citizen; a line so starved of funds that non-paying passengers will be carried, clinging to the carriage roofs.

Has anyone supporting this incomprehensibly expensive project tried to imagine actually using the service? Apart, that is, from fantasising about the thrill of hurtling uncontrollably through a blurred green landscape at 250 miles an hour, to a place where you would probably rather not be going, hoping against hope that bored children will not have dumped a concrete block on the line during the night?

Have they, for instance, ever travelled on Eurostar’s dismayingly grotty ‘low-speed’ Channel Tunnel service, HS1, for which you have to book months in advance?

The pricing is unpredictable, fluctuating wildly according to demand, and there is seldom a seat available when you need to travel. Booking on-line is a matter of guesswork: you tell the computer when you need to travel and where from, and to; it tells you to guess again. The return journey is equally an uncertain process, with a completely different price being charged and no guarantee of seat availability at the time of your choosing.

Will this then be the model for HS2? You can’t just turn up and get on a Eurostar TGV train, you have to ‘check-in’ half-an-hour ahead of departure and be searched for contraband. It’s the train that thinks it’s an airline, only with the shabbiest decor and most uncomfortable seating imaginable. Like an airline, in fact.

Only, one that never gets off the ground.

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