To understand our position on HS2, the new high-speed rail link between London and The North, see HS1. Or Crossrail. You might not have heard of them. HS1 is the code name for the fast rail link between the channel tunnel and St. Pancras in London. Crossrail isn’t open yet but is the new Elizabeth Line running east-west across London from Maidenhead, the prime minister’s constituency, to Docklands and beyond.
Both projects were very different from HS2 in terms of cost, scope, and technical challenges. Whereas Crossrail broke new barriers beneath London, threading its way through densely crammed subterranean tunnels of yore, HS2 is hundreds of miles long and mainly above ground.
HS2 is also different because it comes in two parts: it is a Y-shaped canyon 120 metres across that cuts its way through Tory Britain initially, then Labour Britain in the north. It starts out from London heading west and north to Birmingham, then bifurcating itself to Manchester and Leeds. It costs so much money that nobody can decide where to put the decimal place, or how many zeroes are needed. What’s ten billion between friends?
This article was inspired by a fellow Buckinghamshire chap, Tom Jeffreys. His new book, Signal Failure, is a must-read for anyone living on or near the route of HS2. As I was reading it, the second half of the line (the V north of Birmingham) has just been unveiled. The announcement was accompanied by the usual trivia. The most memorable of which was this: 16 very recently completed houses in Sheffield will be knocked down. The mortar has not even hardened. Many hundreds will be de-homed by the new railway. Still, it’s only 16.
Signal Failure is an unusual book. It’s not, by its own admission, nature writing. It’s not totally for or against HS2. It accepts that there are as many shades of grey as there are households along the line. No doubt there is even disagreement within individual families affected. I routinely see “No to HS2” banners all over the place on any given day. I have not seen one “Yes to HS2” flag. Sometimes the “NO” banners are placed in pairs to emphasize the sheer width of the abuse. 120 metres would even challenge Usain Bolt.
I find myself in agreement with the National Trust, improbably. Now that HS2, like Brexit, seems inevitable, they have developed a policy of cooperation. They will get the “best deal” for nature and will not accept that any deal is better than a bad deal. Have you heard that somewhere before?
There was never a referendum on HS2, and never will be, because it is coming soon. Work is going to start any decade now, and will be finished before the next millennium. Whenever it opens, the route and the precise details of what is tunnel and what is not is still up for grabs. Yes, let’s spend more money to minimise the impact, but let’s not pretend it is unnecessary.
Although it may surprise you, some of us have to travel north for business and pleasure. Some of us even used to live there. It is a miserable life. You can’t afford to fly and the inane security restrictions make a 45-minute flight pointless. Amazingly, it is quicker to catch the train. Aha. But that’s prohibitively expensive unless you book a year in advance and are prepared to lose the cost of your ticket if your mind changes. The current price of a return ticket from London to Manchester is… drum roll… up to £338 for standard class (or £484 if you want a nice chair and a meal). Yes, friends, that is over 600 of your dollars. You could probably get from JFK to LAX for less, and yes, the only guarantee of HS2 is that the ticket will cost more than it does now.
So, that leaves driving. What a little pearl that idea is. All the motorways are so congested between London, Birmingham, and Manchester that you’re better off chancing your arm on the A roads. It’ll take you a little longer, but you stand a chance of something interesting happening on the way.
Even given all these hurdles, a certain number of people still find the need to travel to the north (God knows why). Regardless, HS2 will be faster than a plane, if not cheaper, and will allow freight off the roads and onto the deserted west coast mainline of today. It will help everyone who is not losing their home to it, whether you personally use it or not.
Progress takes many forms. HS2 will possibly reduce pollution from aviation. It is electric so it contributes nothing bad to local air quality. Hopefully it will regenerate pockets of England along its route. It may even push our largest companies to open offices, and thereby create jobs, in Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, and beyond.
On the other hand, there is usually another hand, but HS2 is a one-armed bandit. It is a cash cow that takes rather than gives. Nobody can agree who had the idea. Was it a technocrat in London? Was it Labour? Or Conservative? Nobody knows. It’s the perfect Immaculate Conception. Nobody owns it, so nobody can be blamed. It will be built…but when?