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02/01/2014

Not so fast

HS2 train concept art / HS2

HS2 - doubts over value for money are delaying decisions while cost estimates rise

This country has a worthy record of grand transport projects, but all too often it is accompanied by intense doubt about value for money, which delays decisions while cost estimates rise.
 
In the case of High Speed Two (HS2), the 20-year project to link London to Birmingham and thence to Manchester and Leeds with brand-new express rail lines, the two main political parties squabble unconvincingly about finance. Meanwhile, their significant political supporters – leaders of the Northern cities in the case of Labour and of big commerce for the Tories – demand continued commitment to the scheme.
 
It is nicely ironic that many of the protesters along the route of the first stage from London are apparently Tory voters and that the opposition finds itself championing affluent first-class travellers at the expense of people hit hard by rising ticket prices. 
 
The doubled demand for rail journeys over the past two decades without a complementary growth in seat availability has left a great number of passengers inconvenienced and out of pocket. The response to this situation has been for HS2 planners to emphasise the increase in capacity that the new line will introduce. 
 
But it was surely a mistake to adopt the epithet "high-speed" in the first place, as no one on either side of the argument ever regarded clipping 20 minutes off the London to Birmingham run as crucial to the case. The serious proponents never lost sight of the benefit of taking pressure off the stopping route through Milton Keynes, but they did allow the politicians and press to regale the public with the glamorous imagery of modern, high-speed trains.
It took a passionate intervention by Lord Heseltine in a speech to the RTPI to re-assert that the project could “rebalance the UK” by revitalising the Midlands and North, and that the cost-counters were making restricted calculations which omitted both long-term benefits and the cost of not acting to keep the country competitive.
 
If even a small proportion of the eye-watering billions to be spent on HS2 were to be openly committed now, and with similar publicity, to upgrading and extending the existing network, a whole new travelling public would emerge from those dispossessed since the Beeching axe fell in the 1960s. From beyond the end of the line, many must drive miles to get to a station, though some, like my town in South Devon, have a working track kept going as an attraction for tourists and steam enthusiasts. 
 
As late as 1971 you could buy a ticket from Paddington to Dartmouth, which for a century boasted the only railway station without any track, the last leg of the journey being a river ferry crossing from Kingswear at the very end of the Great Western mainline around Torbay. Our Civic Society is investigating what it might take to link limited services on this last stretch of track back into the mainline timetable. It is an auspicious time to be investigating the reintroduction of regular services as old diesel units will become available when new, longer trains are brought on to busy lines.
 
The case for increased rail travel is hardening as the road traffic and parking situation becomes worse and CO2 emissions threaten runaway climate change. Residents and visitors are in conflict for limited road space, and for business investment the presence of an effective rail service is a major asset. Economic regeneration targets, as well as the ideals of social inclusion, indicate that national rail services should be available to as many rural areas and country towns as possible. Support for HS2 will increase if plans for more modest rail improvements are prominently declared too. 
 
Tony Fyson is a writer on planning matters and chair of the Dartmouth & Kingswear Society 
 
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