SOME pretty poor arguments have been deployed in favour of HS2. The weakest was perhaps the assertion that no one works while travelling by train and so reductions in journey times are a reduction in non-productive time and so, hey presto, productivity gains flow from a faster service.
It is difficult to reconcile that theory with all the laptops, mobile telephones and discussions that are a feature of every train journey. This failure to put forward the case for HS2 is regrettable because it is a good idea with only one serious flaw.
In common with many supposedly complex arguments, the debate around High Speed 2 actually boils down to a small number of fairly straightforward questions.
First and foremost, do we need additional North-South railway capacity? If you believe not then there is no argument in the world that will convince you to support HS2. (Of course, it would also mean that you probably have not travelled North-South on a train for any distance in anything resembling modern times).
If you believe that we do need additional capacity and/or that we will in the future, the only other questions are whether we should base a new line on existing (for which read ‘old’) or new technology and whether we should follow the route of the existing line or look for a different route (and, of course, it couldn’t actually follow the existing route because of things like bridges and roads).
In seeking to answer those questions, we might look for modern parallels. That excludes the existing North-South railways as they are all over 100 years old, but what about the roads?
To begin with there was The Great North Road. London to Edinburgh. Beset with bottlenecks, it was expanded but there came a growing realisation that something new was required. So, take the old plan and copy it and put a winding new road through a number of small towns – of course not. Instead a motorway, with the same North-South link as the aim but with new thinking and new technology. Run it North alongside the A1? Of course not, aim towards Leeds with a spur off to Birmingham and Manchester so that regional infrastructure also gets the benefit (sound familiar?) and so there came the M1 and M6. Given that we can’t do now without the road network, why is it not a good idea for rail?
Arguments against the original Victorian railways included concerns that people’s eyeballs would explode when leaving tunnels at over 30mph and that the soot from the steam trains might dye the sheep grazing close to the line to the detriment of the all important wool trade. These were both no doubt sincerely held concerns but perhaps lacked the feel of being ‘show stoppers’.
North-South rail capacity was an imperative and so eyeball or sheep-based concerns just had to be worked through. And so it comes back to the same single point. Is there a need to increase capacity? If you are unsure of the answer, try taking the train! Afterwards, whatever is the modern equivalent of soot and exploding eyeballs may seem a little less important.
So what is the flaw? Simple. Remember the Channel Tunnel. Perhaps you are picturing the men shaking hands when the tunnels met under the Channel, made possible because of the simultaneous starts in both the UK and France. The timetable for the construction of HS2 is absurd as is the notion that it starts in London and gently meanders its way North.
If it is designed to link London, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds, let’s get to work in London, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds. If this thing is needed – and it is – let’s get on with it. Why aren’t there hundreds of people building the HS2 station in Leeds?
It’s obvious where it will be located so let’s have the jobs and all the other benefits of getting on with it. And politically it would be the smart thing to do. “What are the Tories doing for Yorkshire?” – “well, there are those huge station projects in Leeds and near Sheffield for a start”. And if Labour wants to threaten to cancel them mid-project, let them say so.
If there is a sound argument for HS2 (and there is) there is also by implication just as good an argument for doing it more quickly. Full steam ahead notwithstanding the sheep!
*Simon Reevell is the Conservative MP for Dewsbury.