Every time I look at a news website or gaze at newspaper or switch on the television, it seems, there is always somebody grousing about the new ‘High Speed 2’ rail link between London and Manchester/Leeds/Birmingham and how it’s going to be an almighty disaster, citing things such as how it will cause environmental chaos, destroy whole villages and will effectively be a huge ‘white elephant.’ But the truth is, regardless of what damage it may do, I think we actually do need it, or at the very least something similar.
To start with let’s look at our existing rail system. It’s still, primarily, the original Victorian system and little has been altered or changed since then. It’s the oldest railway network in the world and for that reason alone it is clunky, outdated and in desperate need of modernisation. The system is riddled with delays, horrid and uncomfortable, overcrowded trains as well as high ticket prices and even higher maintainance costs. It’s falling apart at the seams and is only being held together with the railway equivalent of string and masking tape. The whole system is long overdue for an overhall and is in desperate need of modernisation. It’s completely rotten and the only thing you can do with something that’s rotten is to remove it and replace it with something that actually works.
Essentially, at the most basic level, that’s what HS2 is. It’s a replacement for the old, knackered system we currently have. In reality the thing needed upgrading after the Second world war when we were still using Steam Trains. But because we were in such an economic mess (thanks to the war) there really wasn’t the money to upgrade the system (then it was from Steam to Electric). All that was done was that we kept this old, already antiquated system, nationalized it and built more outdated steam trains. By the time the late 50’s and early 1960’s came around modernisation was desperately needed (after several failed attempts) and British Railways had created such a financial mess that the only choice was to modernise so as to make the running of the whole thing cheaper. Diesel Electric Trains had to be brought in and lines that nobody used had to be closed. It may not have been done in the best way (The Beeching Axe, which was, to be fair, brutal,) but it was absolutely necessary in order for us, today, to have a functioning, if still slightly creaky, railway. The problem was the modernisation programme of the 1950’s and 60’s came too late. The rest of the world had already gone electric and railway technology was moving ahead at a phenomenal rate. The Japanese were introducing the bullet train at this point and if we had really wanted to be forward thinking we would have made moves to adopt their system and get ahead of the game. However, the problem was that governments of the day (and maybe even still today) weren’t all that interested in the railways. They thought of them as being unimportant, a Victorian relic. They thought the roads and motorways were more important and poured all the money that way.
Since the modernisations of the sixties, whilst other countries across the world have been investing in railways and modernising and advancing (France adopted high speed as far back as 1981 and Germany and Spain followed suit ten years later) successive governments have allowed our own system become clunky, overcrowded and to fall into a poor state of repair. They’ve allowed ticket prices to become excessive and they’ve made an absolute hash of the management contracts (EG: All that business with giving the west coast mainline to First over Virgin last year.) And in the next few years things are set to get much worse and the current problems will only increase. Eventually the whole rail network will just collapse under the pressure and become a laughing stock. (Or should that be laughing rolling stock?) Our railway needs the upgrade that Spain and Germany got twenty years ago and France thirty years ago. It is, quite frankly, overdue.
And across the world, right now, new high speed rail links are being built or proposed, Everywhere, from Spain and Portugal to Turkey to the US to Australia to Morocco… The world is moving into an age of High Speed rail and if we don’t follow, if HS2 is scrapped and nothing replaces it, then we’re in real danger of being left behind and we don’t want that to happen, at least not on an international front.I know we’ve already got a short high speed link connecting London to Paris but most of the country is north and west of London, where there is no high speed service. If we want to keep the country ahead we’re going to need more than just a link between London and Paris.
Of course, High Speed does have it’s problems, particularly during construction, but most of these are problems that come with any large civil engineering project. It is going to be noisy in the short term and it is going to be disruptive to some areas and it will alter the landscape and the environment and it isn’t going to be cheap… But those are more or less the same problems that would arise with the building of a new motorway (which some people are arguing for instead of HS2) and in my view the high speed railway is the lesser of two evils. And besides, not only are some of the arguments against HS2 the same arguments as when the railways (and the motorways) were first built and then it turned out that everybody loved them, but most of the problems are only short term and a few years after the construction is complete we’ll forget about them. The environment will cope and nature will, as it always does, find a way. New habitats and environments will grow up besides the new railway and i’m sure that nobody would allow the construction to completely obliterate anything of any significance. Yes, some things will have to go but again, that was the case with the original railways and the motorways (except for that house in the middle of the M62). It’s a hard fact of life but sometimes things have to be lost in order to progress.
It’s fair to say, however that there may be trouble after construction. It may be a pain to live next to and it’s quite clear the preexisting HS1 link has been dogged by high prices and unfulfilled promises. However, that to me sounds like more of a management and service issue, the fault of the people running the show. If HS2 were to be well managed and well ran (which, given it’s estimated completion date, gives them plenty of time to look for a decent manager) they could make sure prices were fair and competitive and they could solve any potential problems before they arise. There’s also been an issue with older, slower services clogging up the line. It strikes me that if those services were upgraded so that they too could be capable of higher speeds then this wouldn’t be so much of an issue. As this shows, the problems with HS1 are little to do with the high speed rail link itself but rather the people running it. They can be ironed out and they are not terminal so long as some decent management is employed in the near future.
One problem I will agree on however is that the government are going about it the wrong way. The London-Birmingham-Manchester link is a good idea, it’s just the rest of it sounds a bit mad, at the moment. First of all there is the structure. For one reason or another there is going to be a terminus at Wigan (WIGAN???? Why there? It doesn’t make sense.) And there is also going to be an offshoot towards Sheffield and Leeds. Now I have nothing against Sheffield and Leeds, it’s just that there are more major cities that are more deserving of a high speed link. Why not connect London to Cardiff by way of Bristol? Cardiff is just as important as Birmingham and Manchester after all, far more in fact as it is, like London, a capital city. Cardiff and Bristol have mainly been ignored and, as far as I can see, there isn’t even a plan to add any connections to the south west at all. You could even link Bristol and Cardiff to Birmingham and Manchester, eventually. By all means, if all goes well you can add Leeds and Sheffield and connect up the northern cities later. That would be the sensible option in my opinion.
And then you have the ridiculous cost. How, one wonders, could it cost almost fifty billion? Granted that’s over a period of twenty years or so but it still sounds like an awful lot for a railway. Of course, it’s only an estimate and there’s a chance it will never even get anywhere near that. And if the people constructing/overseeing the project have any sense they’ll make sure that everything stays as in budget as possible. On a long term, large scale project such as this there will of course be unforseen costs and financial pitfalls but when you consider it a sensible financier/auditor will have budgeted for such things. The danger comes if they haven’t done that and it ends up costing far more than it’s worth… Say twice the current estimate. There is a slim chance of that but hopefully it won’t happen. But there’s a plus side to the high cost as well. That fifty billion will be spent over the best part of twenty years… (averaging about two and a half billion per year,) which is nothing when you consider that the olympics cost almost ten billion over a much shorter period,( and that was only a one off event.) The high speed rail link has the potential to outlast even our grandchildren and can be cherished for years to come. It will last, unlike the olympics which in thirty, twenty or even ten years will be largely forgotten. Most of the population won’t have even been born/remember it happening. What you get, essentially, is what you pay for. That fifty billion (or less and hopefully no more) will give us a useful high speed connection between London, Birmingham and Manchester that can be used for years to come and will, so they say, provide a nice boost to the economy. And who knows, if it proves successful it will pay for itself in a few years…
There are some who argue that High Speed Rail isn’t worth it (citing the high costs and claiming nobody will use it, the environmental damage and that it’s a white elephant etc) but I say that we won’t know that until it’s done. There’s no point complaining about things that might not even happen for another thirty years, Yes, construction may be disruptive in the short term and yes, it may be being done in completely the wrong way but in the longer term, although some may not want it, we need it. Our railways need updating for a start and this new high speed link will help to keep us in line with the rest of the world, which in part is already moving ahead of us. A lot of the arguments against HS2 are the same ones that come up time and again with these large scale projects. The cost issue was raised over the olympics and that turned out to be worth it in the end. The environmental/destructive/will ruin the landscape issue was raised with the original railways and the motorways and they all turned out ok. Yes, HS2 has it’s issues and it’s problems, particularly in where it’s being built and the cost and the whole thing needs to be managed much better than it is currently being managed… But our railways do need modernisation and it’s a good thing to keep up with the rest of world. We can’t stagnate. As a civilization we need to progress and with HS2, I believe, we’re onto a good thing. And I’m sure once it’s built we’ll all come to like it in one way or another.