Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Signal problems ahead for HS2

Another day, another report emerges battering High Speed 2 (HS2); this time it’s the Institute of Directors (IoD), dubbing the project ‘a grand folly’. A theme has developed now; lobby group after lobby group emerges to lambast the scheme and one wonders which political party will be the first to burst the consensus and decide it’s just too much of a risk.

The latest survey finds just 41 per cent of IoD members think HS2 will be important to their business; a sizable minority but a big fall from the 54 per cent who thought the same back in August 2011.

And it pours scorn on the always daft notion – and part of HS2’s business plan – that time spent on a train is wasted. Even on commuter cattle trucks, emails are checked and plans are made. On inter-city services, the comfort and lack of interruption can make the train a wonderful place to work. And the IoD survey found just 6 per cent of directors saying they never worked on a train.

Part of me really wants to champion HS2. I adore train travel; the familiar rhythms, the views, the sense of freedom. I get inordinate pleasure from indulging in daft conversations with the Herne Hill station master about the creation of the Sydenham to Penge tunnel, much to my wife’s embarrassment. And last year my wife and I went on a European holiday by train. It was sublime. Rather than suffer the stress and indignity of flying, our adventure began the moment we arrived at St Pancras. The Eurostar was efficient, smooth and not quite long enough; the TGV through France, magnificent. And it even stocked decent wine. And here are all of Britain’s main political parties willing to spend billions on a new rail system. Why shouldn’t Britain have some of this?

A major problem is a matter of timing. France opened its first TGV line all the way back in 1981. It heralded a renaissance in French long-distance rail travel which was emulated across Europe. High speed rail is now a well-established feature of European travel, with a web of lines spreading across the continent; France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium are all connected.

HS2 is not of course Britain’s first high speed line, but it is certainly our first major investment in such a system. But if things go to plan – and that’s an exceedingly big ‘if’ – the first stage of HS2 will open in 2025, a mere 44 years after France’s first dalliance with high speed rail. In what will our European neighbours be investing then? Is there not a danger that it’s a little too late to play catch up? Wouldn’t it be better to spend the £42.5billion, leading, instead of following, with another form of infrastructure; having truly nationwide, superfast wi-fi access, reducing the need to travel – thus freeing undeniably necessary capacity – in the first place, for example?

HS2’s backers are convinced it is not too late. Pete Waterman – such a train enthusiast that when he speaks on the subject it is as though he’s discussing a giant train set equipped with model stations and carefully placed bottle brush trees – wrote passionately in yesterday’s Telegraph, claiming HS2 ‘could transform the skills base of the country’ and would be a ‘beacon for any young people looking to the future’.

And Andrew Adonis, Labour’s excellent former transport secretary, who appears to be getting jumpy at the increasing anti-HS2 vibes emerging from his party, used a column in the New Statesman to claim the case for HS2 ‘is as strong now as when Labour committed itself to the project in March 2010’. The plan is going through the ‘classic “cold feet” period which bedevils every major British infrastructure project’. Cancelling it would be an ‘act of national self-mutilation’.

I really want to agree with him. I just can’t see how.

Maybe my concerns are not worthy. Perhaps the project is for the best and us naysayers are simply following an ignoble parade, trouping behind Luddite vandals, gloomy conservative whingers, enthusiastically unimaginative town planners, and romantic pew-seated High Church traditionalists.

One of the most intriguing aspects about the anti-HS2 lobby is how it appeals across the political spectrum, from the green left to the libertarian right. Yet, while they are on the same side, they are there for different reasons. The libertarian, self-styled, Taxpayers’ Alliance call HS2 ‘a terrible waste of money’ and a ‘politicians’ vanity project’, while the green left yearn for such capital spending to be directed towards alternatives, with renationalisation of the system clickety-clacking constantly in the back of their minds.

Opponents cannot simply be dismissed as shire-dwelling nimbys, a slander against the hundreds of people who face losing their homes around Euston Station. And other problems go unaddressed; the route, the almost inevitably disappointing passenger numbers HS2 will attract (just look at HS1), the dangers of sucking businesses towards London rather than the other way, and the horrifying, and unknowingly enormous, cost. 

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