The Vanity of HS2 Wishes

We haven’t even got anywhere near starting HS2 and already Osborne is launching HS3.

There is a case that high speed travel across the country – say from Manchester to Leeds – is more of a priority than a line that slices through the heart of the Chilterns and the heart of England – including North Warwickshire –  where high speed trains that residents can actually access already exist; and have done since the 1970s.

We need more high-speed cross-coast train links between our northern cities but you don’t have to build HS2 to achieve that. In Europe, it is completely normal for a farmer or entrepreneur to travel from, say Hamburg to Berlin, for a 7.30am breakfast meeting. We should be focusing on the northern cross-city first – before HS2  and saving the nation billions at the same time.

My point is that we already have, thanks to Virgin Pendolino, a first class high speed service that runs between London and Birimingham – direct to Wolverhampton. HS2 will not go direct to Wolverhampton so I will have to change at Birimgham making the 19 minute faster service an irrelevance. In fact, it will probably take longer when HS2 is introduced. Our existing trains betwen London and Birmingham (and to Wolverhampton) are already up to most European standards.

Some years ago, I was invited to the Mansion House for a 7.30am breakfast to hear Martha Lane Fox give her thoughts on the challenges of the digital revolution. As David Cameron’s Digital Champion, I wanted to hear what she had to say so was happy to get up early (4am to be exact) – catching the 5.19 am train (the first) from Wolverhampton to London.

As I parked my car in the ghostly and deserted car park at the station and boarded the train, I felt strangely and smugly Swiss or German as I settled down in an empty First Class carriage where an advance ticket costs about £20 as no sane Brit – or ‘business traveller’ – is commuting down from the West Midlands to London at a time when most self-respecting London clubbers are still just getting warmed up on the dance-floor.

The best thing about First Class on Virgin is that you get free WiFi (there’s a WiFi apartheid on Virgin trains with Standard class travellers having to pay, and worse, try to work out how to pay) so I was able to do an hour or so of emails and get some work done before sliding into London Euston just before 7am.

Despite having come over 160 miles, from deepest Shropshire, I found myself the first person to arrive at the Mansion House, arriving twenty minutes early. I remember this clearly as it as my early arrival at the Mansion House that caused me to first meet a thirtysomething tax advisor at the breakfast orange juice bar, also early herself, who later became a girlfriend. One reason we started chatting is that she asked me hiw far I had come that morning,

No doubt expecting me to say ‘Fulham’ or ‘Pimlico”, she certainly looked at me twice after I replied ‘The 5.19 am from Wolverhampton’.

Would 19 extra minutes have made any difference to arriving at my Mansion House breakfast? One can often wait for 10 minutes just for a tube at 7am. Of course not. I was early anyhow.

The marginal time difference between the current high-speed train service and HS2 is just one of many reasons why I am so opposed to HS2. Having recently toured the North Warwickshire villages of Water Orton, Gilson, Coleshall and the Packington Hall estate – the last surviving part of the old Forest of Arden – and spoken to many people affected by HS2, I am even more bitterly opposed than I was back in 2011, after I learnt that the train did not actually stop anywhere between Birmingham and London.

 
Thus despite being pitched to the public as a high-speed revolution, there was no benefit at all (including little compensation and only the prospect of years of traffic and construction misery compounded by collapsing house prices) for those residents whose houses, gardens and land were being ‘sacrificed’ for the soi disant common good on North-South connections.

When I first heard about the new train link, I simply assumed they were going to use the old London-Birimingham lines and upgrade them. But this is not what has happened at all. Rural and social vandalism is being conducted for reasons of political vanity.

I am favour of high speed rail travel but not if the environmental and social cost – let alone financial cost – is just too high. Why cant we just upgrade the existing superb high speed Pendolino service and spend the £50 billion where it is really needed?

Cutting my journey by 19 minutes would not have got me to the Mansion House significantly quicker. Indeed, various studies have now found that although 19 min may be saved on the journey to London, actually getting to central London from the new terminal will take longer.

Back in 2004, Deutsche Bahn, opened a high-speed rail line connecting Berlin to Hamburg which slashed more than half an hour of the journey and – reaching a top speed of 230 km per hour – reduced the travel time between the two cities to just 90 minutes. (In the Cold War the journey took up to six hours becuse of border controls.) At the time, Deutsche Bahn’s CEO went so far as to declare that Hamburg was now a ‘suburb’ of Berlin, as it was now within commuting distance.
 
Whilst I don’t think anybody in Leeds would like to be described as living in a ‘suburb’ of Manchester, I can see the obvious advantages of much faster travel between major Northern cities. We should be focusing on creating these essential cross-city links  – now.

When the high-speed rail route was first launched by Lord Adonis under Labour, there was much talk about how this was going to revitalize the economy, creating 10,000 jobs and yield £2 in benefits for every £1 spent.

But is that really why this colossal folly of a rail project has been approved by the Coalition? No. The real reason our politicians like high speed trains is the same reason that car makers from Mercedes to Renault indulge themselves with FI teams. It’s a national ego project.

Even I will admit some pride in knowing that the Ashford, Kent bound HS1 train goes at 250 mph – 20 km faster than the German train to Hamburg. That’s no mean engineering feat for a country who used to have a reputation for having the slowest and most unreliable trains – and worst sandwiches – in Europe.

As Hitler proved with his all conquering Nazi funded motor sport programme in the 1930s, and the Russians did with the space programme, speed is the most priceless and ruthlessly effective form of national propaganda. But don’t try to con the public that it is anything else.