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High Speed Two. Serving the Regions or Serving London?
Peter Kellow writes
A few years ago, when I lived for a while in a small village in rural Burgundy, from time to time I would cycle on a minor road to a town some kilometres away. This quiet road crossed over the TGV line from Lyon to Paris and the bridge gave an excellent long distance view of the high speed train approaching from Lyon. It was seldom that I did not stop on the bridge just to view a few trains passing – you never had to wait long to see one. When I had English friends to visit this was an experience that we would always take in at least once as just one of the “sights” to see.
The train from the south would appear in the distance and then in an improbably short space of time this long sleek machine was whooshing under your feet, its slipstream gently blowing up in your face, its force gently vibrating the bridge under your feet. You felt speed not power, air movement not sound, grease lightning not resistance. In a matter of seconds it had slipped away into countryside in the north and stillness returned. Well, yes, high speed trains bring out the kid in me. And I am not alone. My visitors always reacted the same.
So with the announcement this week of the go ahead for the London to Birmingham high speed rail link my instinctive reaction tended towards the positive. Train travel is a pleasure. Well, it is if there is not too much overcrowding and they remember to turn the heating on instead of freezing the passengers (a frequent complaint of mine of the trains in the Kingdom). What better than connecting two major British cities, centre to centre, by a high speed link?
Where people have expressed doubts, these focus mainly on three things. First, the environmental impact on the countryside that the line will pass through, second, whether overall the energy consumption will be beneficial, and third, whether it would be better to spend the money on other aspects of the transport infrastructure.
All of those are good sensible questions, but if we are to examine whether the line will bring real benefits, I would prefer to focus on its impact on the vitality of the regions of Britain. There are two ways of looking at it.
I have discussed elsewhere the proposal for dividing Britain into autonomous regions: Greater London, Southern England, Midland England, Northern England, Wales and Scotland. (And incidentally the need for some such resolution is never more evident than at present with the other big current story surrounding Scottish secession.) The question is: do high speed rail links of the type proposed simply emphasise the focus on the centre; or are they good for the regions by their being better connected to the centre?
It reminds me of the old joke on weather forecasts in the 1950’s that announced: “Fog in Channel, Continent cut off”. So who was cut off? Britain or the Continent? Likewise, who will be connected by HS2? London or Birmingham? Or to put this rather more helpfully, who will benefit most? London or Birmingham? Will the link exacerbate the concentration of development in London or serve to redistribute development and economic activity to region of Birmingham and the Midlands?
You could argue that the high speed corridor will act to make Birmingham an annex of London and restrain proper development of Birmingham as a regional centre. Or maybe the Midlands will be boosted by the easy access (by foot travelers) to the country’s capital and that the region as a unit will profit.
Surely the answer to this must be: it depends. It depends on what goes with the link. It depends what other policies in many areas are put in place alongside the link. So far we have heard nothing about these from the government and so we can only assume that they have not thought much about it.
It is true the government does have a regional policy and this consists of creating Regional Development Agencies in particular localities. This policy has come under a lot of criticism for the way it will privilege the recipients of these agencies and disproportionately disadvantage the others. It is hardly a credible attempt to revive the regions – and its unfairness and bias is all too obvious.
If we could read Cameron’s mind I think it is inevitable that he will see the Birmingham-London high speed link from a London-centric point of view. It will reinforce the centre not redevelop the regions. From his point of view it is Birmingham that is now “cut off” from London - not the other way around. HS2 will bring Birmingham more under the aegis of London. This is why there are no accompanying policies to develop the Midlands region.
On a more positive note and a vital one, the link to Birmingham is only the start of things to come for beyond that the high speed trains will go on to Manchester and eventually to Edinburgh. This trans-Britain line will really start to pull the nation together and could be the basis for real regional initiatives. If Cameron was capable of a bit more joined up thinking he would be trumpeting this to the Scots in their secessionist debate as showing that London really does care.
If he does not do this, it is probably because of the daunting timescale of the project. It will be 2026 before the link to Birmingham will be completed, the one to Manchester has no date put on it and well Edinburgh is but a distant dream.
But let’s think beyond the north-south link, however distant that prospect may be, and focus on how high speed rail could really develop the regions.
Britain is shaped like a tall triangle with a wide base in the south. The current vision is to connect the bottom right corner with the apex. But to make the regions really work we need a network not a line. We need to connect the bottom left corner, i.e. Bristol, to London and, let's not hold back, to complete the network Bristol should be connected by high speed rail to Birmingham. This last connection is the only way to kill the inbuilt London-centric dimension to the proposals.
And don't forget, a high speed network is not a closed system. High speed trains can also run on traditional track and so, depending on the scheduling you might be able to catch the train from, say, Manchester to Oxford via Birmingham without changing. Its just that the last part of the journey would be slower.
Even beyond that, the connection of the British network to the Continental network must be integral to the planning and Cross rail and Euro star are already under construction or in place to ensure this can happen.
“But can we afford all this?” goes the cry. After all, as we have so little manufacturing left, the trains will have to be made by Siemens in Germany. But just to get this in some kind of perspective, HS2 is budgeted to cost £32 billion, with a 60% contingency (Boy! That’s some contingency!), while we bailed the banks out to the tune of £270 billion and up to £200 billion of quantitative easing (money printing) is now on the cards.
Britain has long suffered like all western countries from a malign monetary system and democratic process subjugated to Big Finance, but it is a long, long way from being down and out. With monetary and constitutional reform and due weight given to the regions Britain will reemerge as a world beater – and sooner than most people could imagine possible.
This is the context in which Cameron’s go-ahead for HS2 should be viewed. It just a piece of the puzzle. Cameron could never see the true possibilities that it can bring, nor would he be interested in them. But actions are one thing, intentions another.
The thing wrong with the high speed link to Birmingham it that it is planned to take too long. The government says it will only go beyond the planning stage when Crossrail is finished in 2016. This hanging around will serve no purpose except to comply with the coalition’s flawed failing economic austerity plan.
A high speed rail network is essential to any modern economy. We need it now.
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