This year will see a massive mobilisation of those opposed to building a high speed rail network in Britain.
It seems the new railway will cut a path through the groves and gardens of the most politically articulate. Arguments have been advanced that High Speed Two, costing upwards of £30 billion, is unaffordable at the nadir of the worst recession since the 1930s.
It will demand public funding at a time when the coalition government is committed to paying off the huge tax debts incurred by the last administration. Do people really need a new railway that shaves a few minutes off the trip to Birmingham anyway?
Britain is a small country that is already much better connected with good roads and two main lines connecting north and south. Railway capacity may be strained but can be accommodated in other ways, the argument runs.
Similarly projections of economic and transport growth need to be talked down in view of the recession – again an argument for doing nothing. The environmental damage of a building site hundreds of miles long is too high a price to pay. Think of the greenhouse gas effect of high powered trains soaking up energy.
The arguments against High Speed Two might be advanced with force and eloquence. However none of them stands up to close examination.
First consider the impact of the route through the very heart of England. Far from ruining the landscape, ploughing through hills and meadows, the line will eventually enhance it. The government plans a corridor of woodland to mask the line.
This will not be a simple belt of conifers but circular woods and shrubs creating a new forest, a haven for wildlife, birds and butterflies. The Secretary of State with commendable promptness has sought to tweak the route and sink it in cuttings and tunnels further minimising its visual and audible impact.
Compared to the M40 and the M25 the railway will be considerably less intrusive. The real argument, ‘I don’t want this monstrosity in my neighbourhood,’ is no argument at all and does the objectors living near London, in what used to be called the stock broker belt, little service.
Many have benefited handsomely from their proximity to the economic success story of Europe. Compare Pathé newsreels of London just after the war with its pre-eminence as the world centre of international finance, banking and trade.
It is therefore impingent upon the very people who have done well by London to accommodate infrastructure that will help spread their good fortune further afield. The Big Society, David Cameron talks about, means making sacrifices for the good of the country.
As well as Hammond’s shrubs and woods HS2 will contribute handsomely to a low carbon economy. Accusations that high speed trains create more carbon than others are ridiculous. In fact new high speed trains running at 300 kph consume pretty much the same levels of energy as existing stock on inter-city routes travelling at 200 kph.
More important still, trains drawing power from a clean nuclear electric power station, part of another debate admittedly, will always be much more environmentally efficient than private motoring. As any rail industry professional will tell you, the way to attract more motorists onto the railway is provision of fast, comfortable and reliable services complete with the basic attraction of a seat.
The prospect of linking with Heathrow Airport and High Speed One will obviate the need for increased domestic and French short haul flights.
Good for Business
At first glance the price tag of £30 billion might appear unaffordable. Why is the coalition government backing HS2 when it has an exchequer full of paper debt to pay off? Quite simply the new regime is winding down those public spending exercises that yield no return.
Backing ideas and commerce that create wealth makes much more sense. This is not some dastardly conspiracy of big business. The wealth creators will be the people who dig and navigate High Speed Two, the readers of RailStaff who will crew and signal and drive the trains.
The building of HS2 will of itself create an economic boom. However, the benefits are far greater than that. Look at the high speed networks in Europe. Cities connected by high speed rail flourish and grow.
The social disconnect between London and the north country is of real concern to a government that cannot afford mitigating social spending programmes. The idea behind high speed rail is to spread the dynamics of London’s commercial success to the north and the midlands and eventually Scotland. Make no mistake, High Speed Two is good for business – rail business, commerce and domestic and international trade.
The argument that demand for transport is leveling off holds no water in the rail industry. Demand for rail travel has soared by 40% over the last 15 years. Rail freight has recorded equally compelling progress. This trend has continued even through the recession.
Rail is a growth industry desperate for extra capacity. No amount of tinkering with ever longer platforms and trains or additional sets of tracks alongside the existing main lines will produce this extra capacity. The argument that people do not really need to have a journey between Birmingham and London shortened is fallacious in the extreme.
Britain’s railways are already operating at capacity. Building a new high speed railway capable of carrying 1,000 passengers on trains travelling at 200 miles an hour – and 15 of them operating an hour – frees up paths on the West Coast Main Line.
It will allow for more much needed suburban services and give a hearty boost to rail freight. High Speed Two creates capacity sorely needed on other lines. This translates as more service, more seats and extra freight.
The contention that growth might level off and the UK never emerge from the recession as quite the economy it was, is a powerful argument for doing nothing. Such an argument usually enjoys all to ready an ear in Westminster.
Certainly the last administration dithered when it came to railways – tinkering with the structure and dragging its feet on Crossrail. Building High Speed Two will take 20 years. That the coalition government has decided to push ahead marks a new departure in British politics. It is a triumph of long term vision over short term expediency.
High Speed Two is a statement of faith in Britain’s future. To compete with the emerging economies of China and the east and make a valuable and consistent contribution to a stable Britain needs a clear, open, transport network that promotes the free flow of freight and people.
Britain needs to stimulate commerce. In short Britain needs High Speed Two.