HS2 opposition mounts

When  the first line between London and Birmingham  was  being  mooted  in the 1830s,  a Berkhamsted landowner, Sir Astley  Cooper, called the idea ‘preposterous in the extreme’ and suggested that  ‘if  this sort of thing be permitted to go on, you will in a very few years  destroy the noblesse’ . Well it did go on, and Britain ended up with
20,000 miles of railways  ¬– without losing  its noblesse.

In  fact,  the  railways did much less damage to the environment than the roads  which  followed  them  because,  in  the  words of the great railway historian  Michael  Robbins,  ‘the  railway  etches  in fresh detail to the
scene.  It  rarely  jars and usually pleases’. Now, though, it seems that 180 years on, the row is about to be replayed and this time it is by no means certain that the railway will win.  The proposed high speed line, HS2, the  government’s  pet  project  which  had  all-party  support at the last election, will cut a swathe through the one of southern England’s last bits of   unspoilt   countryside   and   opposition  is  mounting  in  the  Tory
constituencies  through  which  the  line will pass. The opponents point out that the line will bisect the Chilterns’ Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, one of the rare green areas in the overcrowded South East, and could profoundly affect the fragile geology which is dependent on a thin layer of chalk.

The route passes through the Chilterns in Buckinghamshire via the Misbourne Valley and while there would be tunnels and embankments through the hilliest sections, a section of the River Tame would have to be realigned. Its not just the Chilterns. Near Euston, the London terminus, a couple of hundred homes at least would have to go and at the northern end, the line will pass through ancient woodland at a nature reserve at Park Hall on the outskirts of Birmingham.

Money is being raised, local celebrities like Geoffrey Palmer  rousted  up and big meetings organised.  Last week I spoke at a meeting of more than 500 people from all the disparate local opposition groups at Stoneleigh Park in Warwickshire, near where the line will pass. The campaign is certainly hotting up as there is talk of raising a million pounds to mount a serious lobbying effort with national newspaper advertisements and a poster campaign. Lizzie Williams who organised the event is in no doubt that the campaign is winnable:  ‘Once more MPs realise the depth of the opposition, they will realise that this is a vanity project that has no basis’. Indeed, already the Labour party, which previously had fully supported the idea and, in government, had funded the initial study into the plan, is beginning to waver with its transport spokeswoman, Maria Eagle, suggesting that the scheme which has been costed at more than £30bn for 225 miles of railway, may be unaffordable.

As a railway historian and strong rail supporter,  my opposition is based on wider considerations than the fact than the local environmental damage. Indeed, the opponents understand that Nimby  arguments  alone  will play into ministers’ hands who will simply dismiss them as self-interest but there is no shortage of compelling evidence to show that the scheme cannot be justified. The massive cost, together with continued need for subsidy is likely to cripple the economics of an industry that already receives more than £5bn worth of taxpayers money annually. HS2  solves  none of the problems  it is purported to tackle and, worse, could suck up all the money needed to improve the rest of Britain’s underinvested rail network. That’s what has happened in France where the TGV lines are fantastic but the rest of the network has suffered from lack of funding.

The case for the line is based on optimistic assessments of future railway growth which do not stand up to scrutiny.   To  prove the ‘business case’ for HS2, which is actually little more than
a  theoretical  exercise  based  on  the  cost  and  projected  demand, its
promoters  have  assumed  that  the  number  of  people travelling by train
between  London  and  Birmingham  will  more  than  double when the line is
completed  in 2026. Without the new line, the argument goes, the West Coast
will  be full up and therefore it is essential if demand for rail travel is
to be met.
This gives rise to a lot of questions. It assumes that just because there
has  been  a sharp increase in rail passengers over the past 15 years, that
trend  will  continue.  But  there’s no reason to make that assumption. All
sorts  of  factors come into play. People may well be using videotechnology
far more by then, obviating the need to travel.  Homeworking is on the rise
as  many  workers  take  advantage  of  broadband.

Then  there’s the question of fares. The predictions for growth are based on  the  notion  that fare rises will continue as before but, in fact, they are  now  going  to  go up by  inflation plus 3 per cent, rather than 1 per cent  as  they have for the past decade. Energy costs are on the rise, too,
and high speed trains use an awful  lot of electricity.
Moreover,  passengers  on  HS1  have had to pay a premium in order to use
the line, at the request of the Treasury which wanted some pay-back for its
investment.   That  suggests  HS2  users will also face an added fares hike
when  it  opens.  Even so HS1, which cost £6bn to build, has been sold on a
30-  year lease for barely a third of its cost because it has not generated
sufficient traffic to make a return on its investment.
In  other  words,  not  only  is  it  likely  that  the line will need
continued  subsidy  but  also  high  speed travel is not going to be cheap,
unlike  in  Europe,  where  low  fares  have  attracted  large   numbers of
passengers onto their systems partly because governments have been ready to
write  off the cost of construction. Low fares are essential; the new Dutch
high  speed  line,  opened last year,  is not attracting sufficient numbers
partly  because  of  high  fares and also because  it has been beset with a
series  of  technical  problems,  something with which users of new railway
equipment  in the UK will be familiar. These types of projects are bound to
have teething problems that push up costs and deter users.
Supporters  of  the  line stress its green credentials. They suggest that
the  line  will reduce the demand for domestic travel and get people out of
their  cars.  In  fact,  even  the  government’s own report on the proposed
scheme  accepts  that  it will be broadly carbon neutral because high speed
trains  use  far  more energy than conventional ones and many of its riders
would  otherwise  have  used  the old slower trains. Moreover, there are no
flights  between London and Birmingham, and HS2 is unlikely to attract many
people currently making other journeys by air, such as London-Scotland.
Neither  will  HS2 empty the M1. I dearly wish it would, and if I thought
it  would,  I would give it my vociferous support.   In fact, at best, even
according  to its own supporters, it will reduce traffic on the motorway by
perhaps 3 per cent, and not all of that will be at peak times when the road
gets  really  congested.  HS2 is what the French call a Grand Projet, a big
idea, when, actually, a lot of little ones would serve us better, improving
the  railways  we already have. As taxpayers realise that this could be the
biggest  ever white elephant, opposition is bound to spread well beyond the
Chilterns.

Ultimately, there is an even more fundamental question. We already spend too much of our time travelling. This new line will be dependent on attracting yet more journeys, inducing people to rush about the country even more than they do now.  It will encourage people to commute 100 miles of more between Birmingham and London. Sir Astley Cooper may have been wrong then, but he would be spot on today.

  • “could suck up all the money needed to improve the rest of Britain’s underinvested rail network. That’s what has happened in France” — that is really my only worry about this scheme, on which I am otherwise persuaded. But I would like to see detailed evidence that that is what happened in France. My impression, over the many years I used to read “La Vie du Rail” every week while living on the continent, was that in so far as traditional long-distance lines have been left neglected, they are all “long thin” ones such as Paris to Toulouse via Limoges, which don’t go through anywhere big enough to make it economically justifiable to spend much money on upgrading them. (For travel from Paris to Toulouse itself, it’s now well over an hour quicker by TGV via Bordeaux.) This is largely a consequence of France being huge and mostly empty, whereas the UK, or England at least, is small and mostly full. As for other rail expenditure in France, you certainly can’t argue that local transport in and around the major cities has been neglected.

  • Paul Holt

    Good article Christian.

    Some supplemental information would help: A map of the proposed HS2 route with the former GCR overlaid as comparison.

    The local HS2 opposition need to be asked whether they objected to the M40 being built and if not, why not?

  • Peter Platt

    Ive been saying this all along. I bet my life on it that not a single one of them anti HS2 nimbys give a flying fig about what was sacrificed by way of green land and peoples peace and quiet when they drive up and down the M40. Just take a look at what was destroyed at Tatling End/Gerrards Cross between 1983-85 so as to make way for the M25, Yes the once beautiful Misbourne Valley as it snaked its way under the Chiltern Viaduct. All so ‘Mr Comany Car’ could get from Watford to Crawley 20 minutes quicker. Im not for HS2, but not for the reasons that the anti HS2 lobby are against it.The Bitter and twisted part of me wants to see it built faster and wider just to get up the noses of all the car lovers that drive up and down the Motorways of England with not a care for what was given up for them.

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