Wednesday 11 January 2012

Guardian Pushmepullyou

The Guardian faces both ways on the approval of the plan for a high speed rail link from London to Birmingham, with eventual extensions to Manchester and Leeds. A leading article, "Big ticket transport" (11/01/12 - the "link" thing is not behaving itself) gives reasonably enthusiastic support, whilst their columnist Simon Jenkins describes it as "A triumph for all rail nerds (and) money beyond all sense" (also 11/01/12). I find myself comfortably on the side of Jenkins and, for the first time in my life the self-styled Taxpayers' Alliance, who I believe have described the scheme as a "rich man's train set."

As a dedicated Keynesian I am of course delighted that the government is planning to spend £33bn on the development of the infrastructure, but suspect there are many more projects on which the money could be spent which would be both more environmentally friendly and of more use to the majority of the population. I suspect that the government has plumbed for HS2 as a pathetic attempt to keep up with the continental Joneses. But France, for example, has over twice the land area of the UK so it is very useful to have high-speed trains for getting from one end of the country to the other without leaving the ground. By contrast, 40 minutes off the journey time from London to Birmingham is unlikely either to facilitate an economic miracle or improve the quality and convenience of most of our lives.

If and when HS2 is completed I suspect its fares will be so astronomical that only businessmen on expenses will use it, and those of us who search the web for cheaper options will still be travelling along the existing network. (Which, for long journeys, is highly satisfactory. In my college days in London in the 1950s the journey time from Leeds was about five hours: now it is just over two, and very comfortable, apart from the incessant announcements from the staff, even in the so-called quiet coach.)

I am not a transport expert but I suspect that £33bn spent on electrifying the remaining parts of the long-distance network, upgrading the ramshackle cross-country and urban commuter services, providing every major city with a tram system, allocating a dedicated coach lane on the motorways and upgrading the broad canal systems to take more freight would be of far more value to the economy and to the quality of life of the majority of us.

Simon Jenkins claims that the government has caved in to a lobby "led by contractors and consultants who (have) manoeuvred themselves into what has become almost an arm of government." I hope a groundswell of opposition, not just from those on the route who are worried about their back yards, but from ordinary people throughout the country who are missing out on the alternatives ,will force a change of heart.

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