by Roger Wall
Hey! This is one question to which I think I know the answer. That’s unless they’ve been doing a lot of expensive repaving work since I was there a couple of weekends ago to see the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park. The reason I’m so confident that nothing will have changed is that the government is too busy saving up so that it can build HS2. This (of course) is the high speed rail link that seems designed to get us all to the capital as quickly as possible. Despite controversy over the economic case, the environmental consequences and the (lack of) social benefits (not to mention a sudden £10bn price-hike a couple of weeks ago), the government seems determined to drive this one through. It’s only track ‘n’ rolling stock but they like it.
A few things occur to me. For a start, why are we all so desperate to get to the Big Smoke? Sure, it’s a great place and I like going there; but Birmingham’s pretty good too and I’ve also heard nice things about Manchester, Nottingham and Sheffield (feel free to amend this list to suit your own preferences). I spent a few years living in Germany and one of the things that struck me over there was the way in which the major cities all had their own identities and sense of importance. Perhaps this was a consequence of the (then) capital being the relatively small town of Bonn (which might give a clue as to how long ago I was there) but it always seemed very healthy to me. One of the ‘pro’ arguments I’ve heard for HS2 is that it will allow people flying to Birmingham to get to London quicker. Is ‘Birmingham International Airport’ destined to become ‘London North’? Surely, it would be better if the people actually wanted to stay in Birmingham. But don’t start me up on that one.
Anyway, all down the line (I confess that I looked that one up), people are complaining that they can’t get (no) satisfaction. The Court of Appeal has just rejected a challenge by residents’ groups and councils from along the route. Ministers are urging opponents not to waste taxpayers’ money on legal challenges, although what else they’re supposed to do is not clear: just give up and agree with it, I suppose. I certainly agree that we shouldn’t be wasting taxpayers’ money (after all, some of it came out of my pocket).
There are still numerous questions about whether or not the sums add up. I’d suggest that the government’s recent track record isn’t that great – for example, there’s probably still time to get a revised bid in for the West Coast mainline franchise if you’re interested. I’m not claiming it’s easy because obviously it’s not. However, perhaps this scope for error means that we should exercise a bit more caution when such big issues and sums of money are involved. Here are a few related thoughts. Firstly, we’re told how well high speed rail links work in countries like France and Germany (although cities in these countries tend to be much further apart, so we’re not really comparing like with like) and how supportive these countries are of the HS2 plans. We’re also told how many jobs will be created by the new scheme. What seems to be overlooked is that many of these jobs will probably go to engineering companies in (you’ve guessed it) France and Germany, or be fixed-term construction jobs.
So if, despite of all the objections and objectors, it really is full steam ahead, what are the consequences? People will be able to travel a little faster between a few of our cities; a few people will benefit (assuming they can afford the fares); and a few people will get very rich. Quite a lot of people along the line will suffer; see their properties blighted; and get no discernible benefit whatsoever (in fact their local train services might even diminish). Ask yourself how much could be accomplished if we spread out the estimated (revised once so far and only going upwards) budget of £42.6bn amongst the regions to undertake numerous smaller improvement projects. We might lessen the attraction of our biggest city and create a few real local jobs as well. Of course, a few MPs might have to sit for a while longer in their all-expenses-paid first-class compartments. I can almost hear you sigh (you might need to look that one up too) with the injustice of it all: I certainly just did.
Sadly, as the self-proclaimed ‘greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world’ once said, ‘You can’t always get what you want’. Sometimes, the old ones really are the best!
Links relating to the blog [viewed 25 July 2013]
HS2 challenge rejected by Court of Appeal
BBC News Website, 24 June 2013
West Coast fiasco: rail franchise is broken, says architect of privatisation
David Millward, The Daily Telegraph, 5 October 2012
HS2 link to unleash ‘held back’ Birmingham
Clare Lissaman, BBC News Website, 10 January 2012
Siemens beats Bombardier to Thameslink train order
BBC News Website, 16 June 2011