High-speed rail, snail’s-pace building
The HS2 link between London and Birmingham will do wonders for Britain, but why will it take til 2026 to build the thing?
The announcement by UK transport secretary Justine Greening that the government will push ahead with a high-speed rail link from London to Birmingham is good news. But the excitement in some quarters – and the apparent determination to stop the project altogether in others – tell us a lot about the attitude to travel and development in the UK today.
The first section of High Speed 2 (HS2) will run the 120 miles between the UK’s two biggest cities. The second section would link up this line with two other big cities, Manchester and Leeds. The project will be neither cheap nor quick, however. Even without delays and assuming it comes in within its current budget, HS2 will cost £32.7 billion at current prices. The London to Birmingham section won’t open till 2026. The links to Leeds and Manchester would open in 2032-33, along with a spur that will allow fast access directly north from Heathrow airport. On the other hand, while building the line won’t be quick, the trains will be – perhaps as fast as 250 miles per hour eventually, substantially cutting journey times between the capital and many major provincial cities.
HS2 is big news. As Greening’s statement points out, the UK has built only one other major rail route – the High Speed 1 link from London to the Channel Tunnel – since the Victorian era. The long absence of new inter-city rail is shocking, so this new development should be welcomed. Not only will it improve journey times for those lucky enough to be on the new fast train routes, but it will take the pressure off the already overcrowded west coast main line.
There is plenty of opposition to the new route, however. Predictably, the Green Party is against the idea. Even though environmentalists normally love public-transport initiatives, this is just the kind of plan that will encourage people to, er, travel. That would never do. ‘The demand for rail transport is not an immutable physical law and can be reduced by promoting IT solutions’, says the party’s press release, adding: ‘High speed rail is not a “get out of jail” free card for carbon emissions and climate change. The proposed HS2 trains would burn 50 per cent more energy mile-for-mile than the Eurostar and HS2 would produce more than twice the emissions of an intercity train.’
The government has really asked for this kind of debate, however, considering the terms in which HS2 has been justified: firstly on environmental grounds, in that HS2 will help take cars of the road, and secondly on guesstimates of an economic boost – particularly for provincial cities. Opponents have a point here. The environmental case is pretty limited, particularly for phase 1 to Birmingham. It will take limited numbers of cars off the road and vanishingly few people make that journey by air. That has to be set against the greenhouse gas emissions of actually building the line. The upshot? Few, if any, emissions reductions. The business case must be pure guesswork and there will always be some other infrastructure project that could produce bigger gains on paper.
What this doesn’t account for is the transformative impact of making separate cities into, essentially, the same place. If you can get from central London to central Birmingham in much the same time as it takes to cross London, then that has all sorts of implications for where and with whom people do business. Moreover, more people could consider living away from the south-east of the country while still working in London, taking the pressure off housing and other resources there.
Similarly, if Manchester and Leeds are so quick to reach that they no longer feel like some foreign land called ‘The North’, that will have an impact, too. Once you give people greater freedom to travel, who knows what interesting and imaginative things they will do with it? Trying to reduce that benefit to counting carbon emissions and passenger numbers rather spectacularly misses the point.
The opposition that really seems to be making the government sweat, however, comes from the bits of the country that the new line will travel through, much of it picturesque, rural – and Tory-voting. But for all that its opponents pick away at the business and environmental case for HS2, their real motivation seems to be the potential spoiling of their local idyll. In a democracy, though, the negative impact of development in any particular locale has to be offset against the wider benefits to the whole of society. While the direct impacts should be mitigated and compensated for – and Greening announced additional spending on tunnels to reduce the amount of countryside affected visually – local people should not have a veto on important national infrastructure projects.
What really should be sending people out on to the streets with torches and pitchforks is the slowness of the project. It is quite ridiculous that building a new railway should take 20 years. Even the 140 miles of track to be laid to create the first stage of the project will take 10 years to build – barely more than one mile per month on average, with another seven years before the really serious timesaving benefits of the line come through with the links to Manchester and Leeds.
Moreover, critics are right to point out that there are other parts of the transport system that could use some development, too. But this shouldn’t be a case of either/or. For example, London’s major airport – Heathrow – is close to capacity and the current government has ruled out any further expansion. That doesn’t make the need for more runways go away, however. The most comprehensive solution would be a new airport in the Thames Estuary, away from populated areas, that would have the space to expand as demand rose. (Well, away from areas populated with people – no doubt someone will complain that there are some newts or somesuch that might get disturbed.)
Building such big infrastructure is expensive. But it is one unequivocally good thing that the state could do to create the conditions for new wealth creation in the UK. What we don’t need is the carping of those who think that the nation doesn’t have the money to afford such investment and don’t think we should be travelling anyway. Instead of tying up such big projects in red tape, legal action, penny-pinching and eco-objections, we need more ambition and greater urgency. It’s really time to get a move on.
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