AS I SEE IT
As HS2 marks a key milestone TERRY MURDEN asks if it is a badly needed project or a white elephant in the making
Construction work is finally beginning on HS2, the high speed rail link that will run down the spine of Britain, or at least the lower spine. Following 10 years of preparatory work, it promises thousands of jobs over the coming years. Yet you have to wonder if this hugely expensive railway, a centrepiece of Boris Johnson’s new Britain, is a project too far.
The line will initially connect London to the West Midlands and then the north of England. Campaigners continue to press for it to be extended to Scotland. Mr Johnson says it is at the heart of his plan to “build back better”. It will certainly help to ‘build back’. But better?
The French state railway company SNCF once invited me to sample their Train a Grande Vitesse (TGV) on a new line linking Paris and Lyon. It was fast, and impressive. So good it was rumoured to have made the air link between the two cities no longer viable. That was more than 35 years ago. Bullet trains were already plying the Japanese network and other countries had their own high speed rail links. Britain has come to the party three decades too late. HS2 was the answer to a crumbling 1980s rail network.
The cost has already doubled to £100 billion and is bound to go higher. In spite of the jobs it will provide – 22,000 is the current estimate, extending to 400,000 in the supply chain – questions will be raised again about the need for this line.
Its promoters have already changed their case from achieving shorter journey times to easing the pressure on capacity. That may have been valid when forecasters saw only ever-rising numbers using a network built largely in Victorian times. Mr Johnson and the line’s supporters, including the companies that will undoubtedly benefit, insist it will be vital in boosting connectivity between Britain’s towns and cities.
But what is the point of high speed rail in the age of high speed broadband? Even before the pandemic the advance of technology meant more of us could work remotely and faster journey times were no longer so important.
Under lockdown, instant connectivity has been enhanced by widespread adoption of Zoom and Teams. With sharply fewer people now likely to travel or arrange face-to-face meetings, and remote working becoming the norm, critics will say the line is in danger of becoming a white elephant before the first stretch of line is laid. That makes it the Caledonian Canal of our era.
Furthermore, lockdown has encouraged people to seek a less stressful way of working and to stop trying to beat the business clock. With their ability to work at their own pace via wifi-enabled laptops, some might prefer slower, rather than faster, trains that allow us to arrive feeling more relaxed and better prepared at our destination.
Previous studies have also cast doubt on the argument that HS2 will help spread prosperity beyond the south east of England. Experience in other countries is that high speed lines, far from boosting outlying regions, have sucked more people into the centre.
Nevertheless, the latest milestone is bound to spark more calls for the line to reach Scotland. As it won’t reach Leeds until 2040 those arguments will rage for at least another 20 years.
In the meantime, Scotland could play its part in the grand project by building the trains. The Spanish firm Talgo secured planning permission before last Christmas for a 1,000 jobs train manufacturing plant on the former Longannet power station site.
The company said the 80,000 sq m facility near Kincardine was not conditional on HS2 going ahead. However, now the project is properly under way it may renew its enthusiasm to get its plans off the drawing board.
It would certainly be a boost to jobs in Scottish industry which are badly needed just now. A bit of political support for this and other major industrial projects outside the tech and renewables bubbles wouldn’t go amiss, even if Scots-built trains never get to cross the border.