It’s not too late
By Myles Thornton
I and many Branch members have always opposed HS2 from its inception. I’ve had blazing rows with my step father about how Luddite-like I am and if the Victorian’s thought like me we’d have a steam train running between Stockton and Darlington and that would be the sum total of the UK’s rail network.
I guess initially our opposition was as a result of the horror of seeing yet another major transport route going slap bang through the middle of the county. But on reflection we all soon realised the projects worth to travellers was going to be pitifully small. The number of people actually moving between Birmingham city centre and London and vice versa daily was likewise small and would be accommodated on four or five of the trains running between the two cities (HS2 were talking about trains carrying between 500 and 1000 passengers per train and running four or five trains per hour in each direction). So who exactly was going to use all this additional capacity? Some car users for sure (no plane passengers as there were no scheduled flights between London and Birmingham), but was I, for instance, going to drive to Birmingham central or the National Exhibition Centre to then go on a train to London that saved me all of twenty minutes or was I going to continue to go on Chiltern’s trains from Warwick or Parkway and arrive in Marylebone (London’s finest station surely?) an hour and a bit later?
Yes, there were one or two die hard rail men in the Branch who kept on proposing an alternative route north to add capacity to the network, opening up and adding to the Great Central Railway, but the idea did not really float.
If you factor in what Covid 19 and the lockdowns have done to people’s work patterns, all this extra capacity is simply no longer needed. Just take a look at the car parks at Warwick Parkway. Extended over the years now into two adjacent fields over the road from the station’s entrance and a multi storey car park, these, though not empty are woefully underused. It is always possible to park now, whereas pre-covid one was a little anxious about doing so. There was also the absurdity of attaching any importance to gaining twenty minutes of the day travelling (and being at your desk working) and calling it a productivity improvement. Both train companies that run trains between Birmingham and London, Virgin and Chiltern, provide excellent Wi-Fi connectivity and people have always worked at their train desks before they arrive at their work desks. And now of course they do neither but work from their home desks!
My reason for bringing the old HS2 chestnut up once more (it has been a perennial of mine) is that we now have senior Government ministers refusing to say whether the second phase of HS2, Birmingham to Manchester (Birmingham to Leeds was cancelled back in 2021) will actually go ahead. Added to which the Labour party are saying they will need to see full costings for phase 2 before committing to the project. This somewhat contradicts the shadow Labour minister, Nick Thomas- Symonds, saying, “we will build HS2 in full and we will build northern powerhouse rail in full”.
So all a bit of a mess then, but good that costs might be known, made public and have someone accountable for. It’s worth pointing out that the project has already been rated “unachievable” by the infrastructure watchdog, IPA. Borrowing from the sketch writer, Tim Stanley, its rumoured also to be stopping at Old Oak Common (rather than Euston), ”a far flung station close to Wormwood Scrubs”. So if you live in Birmingham and pay regular visits to a loved one in prison, the project is potentially going rather well. For the rest of us it is simply an enormous white elephant. So isn’t it time we simply scrapped the whole thing, phases 1 and 2. But if the link to Manchester is scrapped it might lead to the rest of the line being put on hold and I think that we could guess that that will be the end of HS2. Oh, if only…..!
Back in 2020 the costs for doing so – write offs, compensation, support for construction companies etc – were thought to be in the region of £4 billion! I imagine today that would be double or even treble the amount. And we would look pretty stupid. But how much more foolish is it to pour good money after bad, with the project’s costs seemingly out of control and likely to be north of £200bn by the time it’s complete. And sadly for my step father, who says he’ll be buying a ticket for the first running of HS2’s trains, he probably won’t be around in 2031. Although there is no comparable infrastructure project to switch our attention and resources to, cumulatively the hundreds of stations that need improving, the signalling throughout the network that needs updating to provide an efficient and safe railway, the number of pinch points that need relieving might go some way to alleviating the construction companies pain.
Add to that, and it somewhat grieves me to be suggesting this, use some of the land compulsorily purchased for the line and now blighted by construction work as a source of development land for imaginative housing, green and high-tech industries and other community projects. It will mean burying the odd tunnel drilling machine and moving the landscape once more. But that must be a better way of spending the tens if not hundreds of billions of taxpayers money that’s going on HS2. Most of the land for the line was green field and, in some cases, greenbelt, and the damage has now been done to it but better use can surely be found for it than producing an underutilised railway line for the privileged few, speeding them to London.