HS2 may result in the unexpected


My new book, Engines of War, which is being published next month, highlights a little known aspect of the history of the railways. They were responsible for enabling warfare to be carried out on a far bigger scale than anything before.  Whereas Napoleon could bring together a few hundred thousand troops for a short period of time, his armies had to be on the move soon afterwards as otherwise they would run out of food –  especially for the horses which were ultimately more important than the men.

 The railways changed that. By making the line of communication so much more efficient, armies could now stay in the same place for a long period of time, knowing that the railway network behind them would keep up a steady supply of men, munitions and food. Yet, paradoxically, once  troops got off the trains, the lack of good roads and motorised transport meant that they were in the same position as their forebears in Napoleonic or even Roman times. The three and a half year stalemate on the Western Front during the First World War was the ultimate expression of this contradiction. It was only when the sophisticated weaponry of the second half of the 20th century was developed that the railways no longer played a central role in war. 

I mention this not just to satisfy the author’s ever pressing need to publicise his books, but also because there are important lessons about the unintended consequences of technological progress and change. The development of the railways was mostly a force for the good. They allowed people to travel across countries and even continents in an unprecedented way and stimulated the remarkable economic progress of the 19th century.  The fact that the railways allowed war to take place on an industrial scale was an unintended consequence that no one had foreseen.

 I am spending July cycling through France, criss crossing the main arteries on tiny little routes departmentales and even villageoises and the impact of the transport revolution brought about by the car, and now the internet are  all too apparent. Most of the villages are deader than dead – yes they are still inhabited but most of the signs that say Bar or Alimentation Generale are faded and painted above premises that have long been boarded up or which now house a family, probably outsiders who commute in their Peugeot or Renault to the local town.

La France Profonde is, well,  not quite so profonde any more.  Yes, to a much greater extent than in Britain local shops, genuinely owned by small businesses rather than chains, still exist in the larger local towns but even they are under threat. It is not for nothing that the word Hypermarché is French, and they make even the massive Tesco superstores seem modest in comparison. M Dupont and M Lefevre, the local baker and butcher, simply cannot compete.  The villagers simply go to E Leclerc or Casino, killing off their local shopkeepers. Easy transport by autoroute to these previously inaccessible parts of France has also given their residents opportunities to leave them.

The TGV has actually exacerbated this situation. Several times we have crossed the LGV lines and virtually always there is a huge double decker train thundering by, potentially carrying 500 people, sometimes with two linked together able to take twice that number. Yet, these trains do not serve France Profonde, merely crossing it as fast as possible to get to Marseille, Strasbourg or Bordeaux. They are the best way of getting around France, but only to people who live in or near the big cities, giving them yet another advantage over France Profonde.

That thought has not escaped those opposing the high speed line in Britain. I spoke at a meeting organised by Buckinghamshire County Council and the opposition was not motivated by simple Nimby considerations but by issues such as these. It was remarkably well thought through and intelligent:  ‘What good will it do for us without even a station at Milton Keynes?’, suggested one speaker and there were many other questions about the economic effects of the line.

 Just as with the military aspects of the invention of the railway, the high speed line will result in all kinds of unintended consequences. As it happens, many of these will affect Tory areas disproportionately and at some point ministers well may wake up to them. Then the solid front demonstrated so far in favour of the line may well start to crumble.

  • john

    Similar point was made on Colin Buchanan blog “High speed rail – a growing concern in the soon to become backwaters?” http://bit.ly/c4N5aX

  • Chris Sharp

    What benefit does Buckinghamshire get? HS2 will remove all the express trains that currently pass through their county on the WCML and all those Pendolinos will still have lot of seats to fill. Milton Kenyes could easily have a train every 10 minutes non-stop to Euston with services north to Birmingham, Manchester, Preston and Glasgow.

    A 30 minute journey to London with an average wait time of 5 minutes sounds like a lot of “good” to me. How much time would a train on HS2 save? a Eurostar takes 32 minutes between Ashford and London!

    If they went in with a positive mind set they could lobby to get some of the extra WCML services to stop at Betchley which would provide great connections to the wider county if the East West Rail link ever comes about.

  • Buckinghamshire needn’t worry. This scheme is going to knock the HS2 Ltd’s Y and S schemes on the head…
    It’s mis-named and in an obscure place. It covers a far wider scenario than HS 2’s voluminous proposals.

  • Stephen G

    Here’s hoping that HS2 is cancelled, then perhaps we can go back to Central Railway’s original idea for a north-south freight route.

  • Steve B

    The ‘Heathrow and High Speed Rail’ document mentioned by PeterB is a fascinating read, and the suggested Heathrow ‘Compass-Point’ link to existing main line routes makes a lot of sense and should take precedence over a national hig-speed network.

    If there is to be a north-south high-speed route that makes any sense, it would be along the already-blighted M1 corridor, with a spur to Birmingham. There’s a ready-made route for the first part of this spur: the M45. I currently work in Rugby, and when I’ve passed over the M45 in the ‘rush hour’, I’ve rarely seen more than a handful of vehicles on it in each direction. Why not downgrade the M45 to a 2-lane dual carriageway and put two railway tracks in the middle?

    In any event, Rugby’s already well-endowed with railway alignments that are just waiting to be re-used, including the old Great Central viaducts and cuttings.

  • The emphasis on a faster line to Birmingham puzzles me. Nobody flies from London to Birmingham. It would make more sense to concentrate on high speed trains from London to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester, Newcastle and Leeds and back. With the current delays at airports due to security checks, and the long commutes to and from airports to the centres of cities, rail travel for distances of a few hundred miles could be faster than air and much more pleasant.

    There are long stretches of disused line all over the midlands – which is also Steve B’s comment above – why sacrifice more country to track?

  • Peter Davidson

    @Marianne Pitts Said: It would make more sense to concentrate on high speed trains from London to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester, Newcastle and Leeds and back

    You’re correct of course Marianne but a HSR network for the rest of the UK has to start somewhere and linking any new line to HS1 and through it to the burgeoning mainland European network is no-brainer.

    Therefore, If HS2 starts from close to the existing terminus of HS1 and links to the nearest other large concentrations of population (to make it economically viable) guess where it has reach first?

    Yes, you’ve got it one; Birmingham!

  • PeterB

    …and so we repeat the mistake made by the Victorian railway builders and, again, by the motorway planners. Avoid Birmingham. It’s a quagmire. Or go another way altogether. see above.

  • Anoop

    High speed lines are primarily for journeys of 250+ miles. The proposed high speed line should not only aim to reduce journey times, but also create new direct links between cities where none currently exist, provide a diversionary route for existing main lines to facilitate engineering work, and reduce congestion to allow more frequent local trains on the classic routes.

    My suggestion is: 1) Birmingham International to London (with a spur to Heathrow) to relieve congestion on the West Coast Mainline and at Heathrow. 2) Birmingham International to Newcastle to provide a new fast link between the Midlands and the North East, as well as a diversionary route for the Midland Main Line and East Coast Main Line. 3) Newcastle to Edinburgh to further reduce journey times from London to Scotland.

  • Richard Hare
  • Anoop is on the right tracks, no pun intended, however I suspect the North East would get more from not having HS2 so I would propose a west coast route with a spur to Leeds.
    I don’t see the point of linking Newcastle to the network. They would be better served by running more trains with the spare paths out of Kings Cross. This would potentially allow more express services taking the overall journey time down. I don’t think the difference between 2 or 3 hours is that great, not if you have to pay a largish premium as well.

    It’s academic really since only our grandchildren are likely to take advantage of it, assuming planning creaks along with the usual British pace.