Sometimes I do wonder how we managed to build an Empire where the sun never set, saved Europe three times from tyranny and became the fourth largest economy on Earth until Blair and Brown managed to royally mess up our economy.
The reason I say this is because of the massive fuss the project to build a high-speed railway track between London and Birmingham and beyond, known as HS2, has caused. The Secretary of State for Transport, Justine Greening, has today given the green light to HS2 but not until a consultation which received 54,909 responses was completed. A thorough debate over a project which is estimated to cost at least £32bn is very worthwhile in any democracy but some of the argument against it was becoming almost luddite. High-speed railway lines are a common occurrence in France and Germany and help to integrate their dispersed cities across their respective countries. In the UK, we have no such infrastructure. Our railway lines, when you look at the population size and landmass in Britain, are, frankly, a disgrace. The North of England might as well be in a different country for how long it takes to get between Manchester and London. Is it any wonder there is hardly any what economists call “fluidity of market” in the UK, i.e. people travelling relatively long distances to find work or do business.
The anti-HS2 brigade seem to be a distinct bunch: they are wealthy Home Counties dwellers who don’t want to see their English countryside altered one tree or hill, even if means more people languishing on the dole queues or economic development in the North of England not taking off. They disguise their selfishness by playing the green card and harping on about the environmental benefits. It always make me laugh when people say this country is already concreted over with housing and roads: it is not. The vast majority of England is still fields and forests (just look out the window when you fly into any London airport). A new, relatively narrow, infrastructure corridor really is not going to make much difference to the landscape in the grand scheme of things.
Some local Conservative Associations, whose town and villages are on the route, have stopped sending tens of thousands of pounds to Conservative HQ in protest and normally sensible Tories like Jonathan Isaby over at the Tax Payers Alliance have also come out against Britain starting to catch-up with the rest of Europe when it comes to a rail service fit for the twentieth century never mind the twenty-first century. Of course, the Conservative (allegedly) Prime Minister, David Cameron, is in favour and is another reason I am slowly warming to him again. It is rumoured the Welsh Secretary, Cheryl Gillan, had threatend to resign if HS2 went ahead but I doubt that will happen.
I personally believe HS2 to be entirely necessary to help drag Britain’s rail infrastructure into the twenty-first century and to better integrate our economy between the north and south of the UK. The new railway will also free up capacity on existing commuter links, as Justine Greening outlined in her statement to the House of Commons today. The cost is enormous but the economic return is calculated to be greater and let’s face it the early railways and the motorways built in the 1960s have quite clearly enabled economic growth. HS2 will be another booster to economic growth during the next 60 years.
The trains on the new network will travel up to 250mph allowing commuters to travel from Birmingham to London in 45 minutes, reducing the journey time by almost half from one hour and 24 minutes. A Birmingham to Leeds journey will be reduced from two hours to 57 minutes and a Manchester to London journey from two hours and eight minutes to one hour and eight minutes. Wow.
Of course, HS2 is a line which will go up the centre of England. From what I can gather, the release of commuter space on existing lines will only occur on the West Coast mainline and the benefits of better intercity links (for example direct trains to Glasgow and Liverpool) will only be provided to people whose current railway line will interconnect with the new HS2 line. The Great Eastern line won’t be one of them and this is another reason why our local MPs must continue to press for vast improvements in our railway infrastructure in the East of England or by the time HS2 is finished Suffolk and Norfolk might be devoid of working age people.