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That, of course, depends on what the question is.
Britain’s railways are a relic of a bygone age and lag behind the rest of the world – particularly Europe, Japan and China. Close to home we have the likes of France who have embraced high-speed rail for years, to good effect.
So far so good – there’s not much to disagree with there. Except that the two statements don’t necessarily go together.
Just because dedicated high-speed lines are appropriate in France, with its wide-open spaces between major population centres, doesn’t mean it makes sense in Britain. HS1 works for the same reasons – it’s a fast route between distant capitals. HS2 on the other hand is a proposed fast line from one city to another which has to pass through or close to numerous highly populated areas. To paraphrase Douglas Adams; what’s so special about Birmingham that so many people from London want to get there (or vice versa)?
But it’s so much faster…
Admittedly the current 85 mins between Birmingham and London is to be cut to 50. That’s great, except all the mucking about to get to and from the termini (which will rarely be where you are actually going), is exactly the same, so in percentage terms, is that 35 minute saving really such a big deal? For anyone living elsewhere, there will be the addition of a transfer between stations in Birmingham which will wipe-out that saving.
But HS2 will be extended to Manchester and Leeds
But will it? If the first stage turns out to be a white elephant, then Birmingham will be as far as it gets. Even if stage 2 does go ahead, it only dilutes the problem of it being a separate network, which only serves a small proportion of potential travellers.
HS2 will be a huge boost to the Northern Powerhouse
Come on… surely nobody is taken-in by that sound-byte political claptrap? Giving the former industrial north a fancy new name doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference. Crucially though, HS2 is supposed to make it easier/quicker for people in the north to get to the south-east. How on earth does that do anything other than cement London and the south-east as the centre of all things?
But the passengers want faster trains
Do they? Really? Ask regular rail users what is wrong with the system and you’ll get the same answers over and over – but speed won’t be one of them. Overcrowding and poor reliability are far, far higher on the list of gripes, along with cleanliness and the cost of tickets. HS2 might be tempting, even if it is more expensive (which is bound to be the case), not because of the speed, but because it is likely to be more reliable. That’s an argument for better railways, but not necessarily faster ones.
But the railway network is creaking at the seams. We need a new line.
At last; something we can agree on. Our railways are indeed struggling to meet demand. More capacity is needed and just like the overcrowded motorways, a system running at, or beyond its capacity is acutely susceptible to melt-down when something goes wrong. The network does need new lines. The cuts of the Beeching era (and before and since), were responsible for taking away resilience. By removing the alternative routes, the ability to cope when something goes wrong, is taken away. Imagine someone saying we don’t need the A6 because the M6 duplicates it. Perhaps not a perfect analogy, but you get the drift. When the M6 stops (as it does on an alarmingly regular basis), traffic spills out onto the A roads. The railways don’t have that option because all the “A roads” were closed in the 1960s.
So, yes we need new trunk capacity, but we also need a more resilient network which doesn’t make “bustitution” the only option when a line runs into trouble. Motorways like the M62 are gridlocked much of the time, partly because the rail alternatives are so poor.
So, the solution to north-south capacity is not to squeeze more out of the Victorian network. The solution IS a new line (or lines) – just not HS2.
Like the motorways, railways are a mix of passenger and freight traffic. Lorries slow-down the motorways and make them less safe, but on the railways, freight trains are slower and take longer to start and stop. they have to be continually halted and re-started to allow passenger trains to pass. For freight, speed isn’t that important. It doesn’t matter whether a container train takes 5 hours or 8 hours to complete its journey, but it does matter that it is having to weave in and out of the way of faster passenger trains, throughout its journey. That doesn’t always happen as it should, causing delays. It’s also costly in terms of fuel and makes breakdowns more likely.
So, if HS2 isn’t the answer, what is?
What if we separate the freight and passenger traffic? Perhaps build a new north-south freight line, meandering near, but not through the major population centres, with trans-shipment facilities where they are needed. Because shaving 15 minutes off the journey doesn’t matter, the line can avoid the NIMBYs and the National Parks, and can cause the minimum of disruption as it is built. By not mixing passenger and freight on the West and East Coast main lines, you allow them to run more efficiently and remove bottlenecks. Delays due to a broken-down train become a thing of the past.
You could take it further though. The line can be self-contained, as HS2 would be, so can be built to a different “loading gauge”. Provide a roll-on-roll-off system for lorries to get them off the M6 and the M1. Think how much time that would save for millions of people who have to use the motorways. Government would have to enforce or encourage use of the new line, but it needs to be looked-at in terms of cost to the country as a whole. How many million hours would be saved by businesses, by them not having their employees sat on congested motorways?
It seems that the roller-coaster of this ridiculous vanity project is now unstoppable, with both sides of the political divide unable to back-down after supporting it thus-far.
The questions remain though –
Is HS2 really the answer to the country’s railway needs?
Who is it for?
What does it achieve?
… and most importantly, could all that money be better spent?
As far as this writer is concerned, the answers are “no”, “nobody”, “nothing” … and an emphatic “YES!”