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
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.