By Oliver Ward
The Chinese built their High Speed Rail (HSR) in less than two years. In Britain we have been debating the subject for two years, members of all political parties have been stroking their chins in backrooms and passing memos between themselves but its expected completion date is still speck in the distance at 2026. And that’s providing initial targets are met, which inevitably will be extended while the counties wrestle for their interests to be heard like dogs fighting over the abstract concept of a bone, which may or may not be provided in much later life.
Taking a train between cities in the north of England is no easy task at the moment. I found myself on a train from Leeds to Manchester recently, two bustling cities representing modernity in the North of England. Long gone are the Thatcher days when the bleak British north was a place of coal-blackened faces and chips with gravy, Leeds is now the second largest provider of financial services (behind London of course) and you can even buy a panini at the train station if you can squeeze into a suit and tie. Despite this the train I found myself on was late, a fact that frequent train users simply become accustomed to in these days of High Speed Rail 1. Nor were there any seats for the 50 minute journey, but this too did not hamper my journey as I had come prepared with a large backpack. I simply placed it at my feet, assumed a position which can only be described at halfway between a squat and a perch and decided to wait out the journey- made all the more quicker by the fact I was unable to see out of any windows to assess geographical bearing because my face was around crotch height and to avoid the embarrassment of those around me I kept my gaze transfixed on the floor until the announcement came that we were approaching Manchester.
It seems Britain needs an improvement on the way its population can travel between cities. At £42 billion HS2 however is certainly not the cheapest or simplest option, that is providing the initial budget is met; given the HS1 and Olympic initial budgets it seems unlikely. If the Telegraph is to be trusted the scheme has already cost the taxpayer a whopping £87 million in consultancy fees. The reality is there are cheaper, more straightforward ways of increasing capacity and speed of existing services.
Currently the Labour Party is supporting the construction of HS2 as it argues it will cut journey times and therefore “re-balance the economy away from London”. It is only Ed Balls who questioned the £42 billion price tag. He is right to, there are far cheaper ways of creating a more comfortable rail service, starting with the opening of First Class when economy becomes filled and First Class remains near empty.
Many Conservatives shudder at the idea of travelling across our radiant country shoulder to shoulder with the general population but I feel I have some words of comfort. Firstly using the train is not the cheapest method of travel in this country, and the inflated prices we are forced to pay price out many Oxbridge graduates let alone the rest of the population. Secondly, on the off chance that the Jeremy Kyle show does pay travel expenses for its guests and Sir Nicholas Winterton finds himself face to face with Paul from Birmingham, a man with more children than teeth and an unfaithful wife in urgent need of a lie detector test, at least Cross Country promise all their First Class passengers that their seat will be aligned with a window so he can stare awkwardly out at the rolling English countryside without those infuriating joins to obscure the view.
Other options such as increasing the length of trains on inter city routes also provide a cheaper, viable alternative. The speed of the trains surely has little impact on the national economy. Trains are fitted with WiFi and the professionals I encountered on the train were glued to their screens for the duration of the journey and it would seem they were perfectly capable of working all the way into Manchester. It is these professionals who dominate trains everywhere and who the scheme is intended to benefit the most, but it seems difficult to see why they need the scheme when the technological age has brought the office into the palm of our hands and a fifty minute train journey simply implies a fifty minute portable manifestation of your digitalised office.
Proponents suggest it will boost the economies and jobs in places like Manchester and Leeds. Employment in the north will rise and put an end to the way London inhales jobs from the North of England like an all engulfing black hole. However analysts predict London will actually benefit most from HS2 and in reality the opportunities for employment in the capital will rise accordingly, suggesting there will be no change in the proportionate distribution of employment throughout England.
There are reasons why many of the other European governments have scrapped HS2 plans, the new lines were “underused” and “costly”. And if we have to wait until 2026 until the benefits are reaped who is to say the demand will still exist? By 2026 it is likely that national economies will rely more heavily on faster broadband to work more efficiently rather than faster rail connections yet only one per cent of homes currently have fibre-optic cabling, improvement of this will be a far more pressing concern and would be a far wiser use of £42 billion.
Not even considering the environmental impact and the backlash from residents in Warwickshire and Stafford over the prospective placement of the new tracks, we fundamentally do not need HS2. It will be an outdated solution to a problem which probably won’t be around any more if the cost of rail travel keeps rising.
Gerald Warner in The Scotsman wrote that politicians aren’t remembered for merely upgrading the signalling. He is right, the HS2 is a vanity project for the Conservative Party and the Transport Minister to show they are a modern party. The joke is that by the time HS2 is completed it will no longer be a modern product but a desolate reminder of the Coalition Government and their ostentatious plans, endless paper-pushing and weak opposition. A spokesperson for Ed Balls said “we will take a hard-headed look at both the costs and benefits of the scheme to ensure it is the best way to spend £50 billion”. Which makes you wonder, what have they been doing for the past two years? And where will we be on this cursed, done for project in another two years time.