No one wants to see our rail system modernise and thrive more than I do, but HS2 is not the way
Like most British people, I first experienced high-speed trains in France. I don’t think I found them completely entrancing – I realised the new Train à Grande Vitesse spelled the end for some of the old-fashioned charm of French railways, such as the boat express that trundled along the quay at Dieppe or the steam shunting locomotives at the Gare du Nord. But they were impressive – they showed the French state was committed to modernity. Inspired by the Japanese Shinkansen, which first ran in 1964, they gave long-distance train travel a future in Europe that sleeping berths and irritable waiters pouring claret in bouncy restaurant cars could never have secured. They flew down straight, steeply graded tracks through French countryside that seemed too copious to be spoiled by something as puny as a railway. Lovely rusticity flashed past the window. “And here is a mill, and there is a river:/ Each a glimpse and gone forever!” The RL Stevenson poem never seemed more apt. Eventually, after the Chunnel and a new section of line to Marseilles were opened, you could leave London at breakfast and reach a Mediterranean resort well in time for dinner. The old way, however charming, took half a day and a whole night.
It was amazing, but with our amazement came dissatisfaction. Travelling north, a train that had hurtled across the Pas de Calais now rolled so slowly through Kent and the London suburbs that you could read the names on the station signboards – Paddock Wood, Sevenoaks, Penge – as though somewhere in the darkness under the Channel we had fallen asleep with Cary Grant on the 20th Century Limited and woken up with Will Hay in Oh Mr Porter! It was shaming – that Britain should compare so badly with mainland Europe, and many writers, including me, chastised successive British governments for their lack of imagination and investment. In 1996 Switzerland, Italy and France planned railway investment at the rates of £40, £33 and £21 per head of population respectively, while the equivalent figure for Britain was £9.
These were not good years to be aboard a British train. Years of underfunding were followed by a particularly willful and flawed privatisation – enabled, paradoxically, by increased public subsidy – which had several unhappy results, including the Hatfield crash of October 2000. The railway’s reputation had probably never been lower, but only seven years later came the opening of the new fast line though Kent and the refurbished St Pancras terminus, which made train travel fashionable for the first time in living memory. It helped, of course, that the destinations were European, and that the St Pancras restoration included expensive shops and a champagne bar. Nonetheless the new line’s title, HS1, implied there might be future fast lines that connected British cities and made us feel the equal of Italy and Spain, where 180mph rail travel, Rome to Milan, Madrid to Seville, has become an everyday fact of life.
It was into this receptive public climate that HS2 was launched, first by a Tory opposition that promoted it as a so-called alternative to Heathrow’s runway expansion (unpopular among its west London MPs) and then by a Labour government that, in the recent words of Peter Mandelson, was “on the eve of a general election and keen to paint an upbeat view of the future”. The Labour cabinet adopted it as a “national cause”, and whatever the political calculation behind the decision, the transport secretary and rail enthusiast, Andrew Adonis, embraced it fervently and sincerely. He had breakfast one day with a few people he identified as sympathetic, to ask how the project might be presented to the public. One of us suggested it was important to stress it would be a “people’s train”, with low prices, not just for the business classes. Another of us, possibly me, thought it would be a good idea to start digging in the north rather than the south, so that its economic effect was felt there first.
None of us said it was a crazy scheme. Just like the present House of Commons, where only a few MPs in any party oppose it, we were all impressed with its grand ambition. The present transport, Patrick McLoughlin, describes it as a “once-in-a generation opportunity to … secure our country’s future prosperity”. His predecessor, Philip Hammond, and the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, have each said that it will heal the north-south divide. But these assertions are entirely unsubstantiated, as John Tomaney, professor of regional and urban planning at University College London pointed out to a parliamentary committee this month. Exact analogies are difficult, but high-speed lines in Spain, Japan and Korea have if anything widened rather closed the gap between capital and provincial cities. “The government is offering HS2 as its regional policy,” Tomaney says, “but there’s very little evidence it’ll do what they say.”
What it will statistically do, if all goes to plan, is knock 35 minutes off the journey between London and Birmingham when the first stage opens in 2026, and an hour or more off the times from London to Leeds and Manchester with the opening of the second stage in 2033. The southern section of the West Coast Mainline will be drained of its long-distance traffic, making room for more freight and commuter trains: an important side effect, according to the Department of Transport. Last month the estimated cost was increased by about £10bn to £42.6bn, or £50bn if the rolling stock is included. Believers in the DoT’s passenger predictions and cost-benefit ratios are in decline, while the project’s skeptics grow in number – a surprisingly disparate list that includes the Economist and the Financial Times as well the leftwing New Economics Foundation, and Nigel Lawson and the CBI’s director-general as well as Mandelson, Alistair Darling, the chair of HS1 and the transport writer and London mayoral hopeful Christian Wolmar. Many believe (as I do) that substantial enhancements could be made to the present system for a third of the cost – an alternative plan already exists – and that the likely consequence of HS2 is to turn northern cities into far-flung London suburbs rather than places with their own dynamic economies.
HS2′s first, most vocal critics were, of course, householders in the Chilterns who felt that the line would ruin an Area of Outstanding Beauty as well as the price of their property. I went this week to talk to one of them, Emma Crane, who from her house near Great Missenden helps run the HS2 Action Alliance. Crane showed me houses that couldn’t find buyers and described the sense of blight that hung over her village. How odd it felt, with so many decades of railway enthusiasm behind me, to agree with her – how odd to find fault with a government that disobeys its own ideology and commits lavish state spending to a railway, providing thousands of jobs and hundreds of contracts for work on the infrastructure. Once upon a time that’s what we all wanted, did we not?
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