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‘By following in the footsteps of the 19th century railway pioneers, the government is signaling its commitment to providing 21st century infrastructure and connections – laying the groundwork for economic growth.’ These are the words of praise and promise from the UK Transport Secretary Justine Greening, who has given her seal of approval to the first phase of the High Speed Two (HS2) that will see operation, it is claimed, by 2026.
What are the benefits of this supposedly monumental scheme of travel? One of them, according to the Cameron government, will be to cut London-Birmingham journey times to 49 minutes, a similar task that might be managed in many countries, but is positively herculean in the British context. Railways may well have been born in Britain, but that is also where train travel proceeded to suffer ignominious retrograde.
According to Greening, the creation of this infrastructure will be done at minimum cost and affect on the environment – a network developed ‘with the lowest feasible impacts on local communities and the natural environment.’ The cost will come to 32 billion pounds though the returning economic benefits will far outweigh the outlays.
Taking the train in Britain gives travelers the classic blueprint on how not to run a transport system. Where there should be ease of contact and connection, there are confused links and costly distractions. London is the centrally positioned monster one must pass through to reach other parts of the country, creating a logistical nightmare that encourages the public to take to cars rather than the train.
For one thing, it is a reminder how odious the policy of privatization proved to be when it became the gospel of the Thatcher government. The lack of uniformity in travel – all in the name of an enforced variety against state control, has created a myriad of train systems that have made the transport policy folio one of the more hazardous jobs in Britain.
It also stands as a sad reminder that trains are run in a far more efficient manner on the continent, where the high speed train is not regarded as an exotic species. Britain might well have introduced Europe’s first regular ‘fast’ service reaching to speeds above 124 mph, but that is where progress has seemingly halted.
European counterparts have fared much better, making speed and train travel central to the need for growing and mobile populations. The French have their treasured TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) system that services an impressive collection of 149 destinations. The Spanish have the impressive Alta Velocidad Española (AVE) run by the country’s national railway company Renfe, a state run body that would be deemed anathema to service in Britain after Thatcher. These are just samplings that should make the transport gurus of British public policy blush.
Such administered (or mal administered) insanity in the context of train travel in Britain also provides fertile ground for speculation, conjecture and promise. Labour’s past promises to introduce new trains to reduce overcrowding during peak hours never eventuated. Fares, already extortionate, continue to rise. This is despite the fact that regulated fares do exist. A class of wealthy travelers is already in place.
Then there is the question of where the money to build the system is going to come from. In an austerity climate, such announcements seem rather bizarre. Presumably cuts are going to be made to existing investment plans in the railway system. Ticket prices are also bound to rise further.
The final concern will be what environmental impact the lines will have. This will be a sore point for various Tory MPs who have seats in picturesque areas of the country that may well bear the brunt of the construction. Britons tend to be rather good in the business of mounting local campaigns against large scaled projects, and this will prove to be no exception. Conservationist Steve Roddick has made the accusation that the train policy will only have the effect of making the various connecting cities ‘suburbs of London.’
As Greening will not be around in 2026 to oversee any resulting project, any comment from her might be regarded as fatuous. That, of course, won’t stop her or other members of the Cameron government from indulging in a bit of soothsaying. Indeed, there are promises to take the project to its second phase, the Y-shaped track that will reach Manchester and Leeds by 2033. The response by Joe Ruskin, a HS2 campaign coordinator tends to add a good dose of reality to it. ‘There is no business case, no environmental case and there is no money to pay for it’ (BBC News, Jan 10).
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org