Monday, January 28

HS2. Neither Here Nor There.

Only the cow seems to be in focus with HS2 Ltd

Lots of speeches and stuff about the new high speed rail link this week. It doesn't seem to be coming particularly close to here so my comments are not in the NIMBY category, just what I've been thinking over the last year or two generally.

Two things bother me: it's going to cost an extraordinary amount of money and take an extraordinarily long time to complete. It's being sold to us on some strange North | South lines, somehow making Northerners feel more connected to us Southerners. No way is some railway going to do that. Admittedly they may be better connected in 2030 or whenever but I can't see that making much of a difference to anyone's attitude either side of Rutland or wherever South becomes North.

The one good thing that the project could have going for it might be the large number of construction jobs that it would create, so removing a good few hundred thousand from the Job Seekers' queues and I suppose I might be a little more convinced if it were being mostly funded by the savings in welfare benefits but no-one's come up with those figures yet which tends to make me believe it won't be by any stretch of Treasury imagination. That's pretty long-term, too, and the vast majority of beneficiaries over the next few years, when we most need the jobs and something to boost the economy, would be lawyers, planners and people on both sides of all the inevitable negotiations promoting or denigrating this and that. Graphic designers, too, should do well as there'll be logos, leaflets and lots of lovely web sites to make. If you take a look at the current rambling and impenetrable bundle of text and PDFs that comprise the on-line information for all this you'll see why there'll need to be a lot of money spent on that!

So we're trying to pay off the huge debts inherited from Labour's crazy spending years and holding back everyone's pay, encouraging people to work longer and cutting back here, there and everywhere but feel it's OK to spend vast amounts on a railway line that's not going to produce any discernible benefit to the nation or most people or businesses until most current CEOs have long retired and moved to Spain or Switzerland or gone back to India? I can just about swallow tough times ahead if the debts do get cleared but if there is money to spend on a project or three then this is most definitely not one I can support.

Things are changing dramatically and will continue to do so apace. More people are now working from home. Firms don't need to be in cities anything like as much. The internet has developed to a point where communication and working on-line are just natural. The speed and reliability of internet services is such that it hardly matters where you live now and, once the providers really get their acts together, anyone anywhere will, before the tunnelling and flattening commences, be able to work efficiently wherever they happen to be, North, South, East and West. Even in the Midlands. Yes, there'll always be goods to transport from one place to another but I'm not so sure we shall be looking to transport people across vast distances or that there will be a particularly strong demand from those who do have to travel from London to Leeds to be able to do so that much more rapidly.

Wherever they start from and wherever they fall out of the new carriages, they'll still have that tricky problem of getting to a station in the first place and, unless every Yorkshire manufacturer is housed in some huge multi-storey factory next to New Leeds Station they'll need to travel along M, A and maybe even B roads and avoid sheep to reach their actual destination.

The reason why people don't travel around as much as they might is because the two ends can often be a pain. We don't need super links between the big cities. We need good, uncluttered links between all the little places and the big places. We're all scattered across the country - even those who think they live in big towns probably actually live on estates several miles out from the dot on the map that the town's name is attached to. Sort of under the P of Northampton.

If I want to go to Leeds or Manchester I get in my car and get to my destination near one or the other 2½ hours later. I have attended meetings galore where colleagues have taken far longer travelling from nearer points by public transport and who tend to start looking at their watches in the afternoon as they have to take this or that train at 4:56pm whereas I can just wander out, walk a few yards and drive away whenever the business is done. I have no problem with those who genuinely prefer the train or hate driving or even the few that actually like buses but I do get frustrated with those who try to tell me that it is more convenient or, worse, better for the environment. And it is, I believe, this annoying group of people who say that the train is the only way to take the strain, who seem to have won the day and influenced thinking behind this massive planned expenditure of our stretched resources.

I have never heard of anyone saying that they want to get from A to B more quickly by rail. But I have heard hundreds say they'd like to get from D, E F and G to H, I J and K via L, M N and O less stressfully and with a more reliable timing. If they're going by rail they'd like to be able to get to a station easily and park their car there at a reasonable cost and without walking miles. If they're going by car they'd like to avoid having to go through narrow town centres in long queues, lose shock absorbers from potholes or be stuck behind someone doing 62mph in the fast lane of a motorway. (He thinks he's doing 69¾mph but most speedos still tend to over-read by 10% - check your GPS speed one day!)

I have never heard of anyone going daily shopping by train, visiting relatives by just train or taking the kids to their friends parties by train on Sundays. This is Britain, not China or even France with their great tracts of land separating communities where high speed trains can really make a significant difference to journey times and whether they happen at all. Here we all live within a few hours of each other and knocking a bit off the middle bit of that journey time isn't going to make that much difference. We need nice roads that are well maintained, car parks, maybe more buses and links between out-of-town car parks and centres or even trains for that. Many would even appreciate the reopening of lots of little local train services between little places and some East-West lines too. But we don't need any particularly high speed, super tilting and whizzing bullet trains to make life more pleasant on our travels.

The anti-car brigade will already be shouting CO emission, of course, but great advances are being made in electric motors and I've always had doubts about the mass transfer to diesel. I find it hard to believe that all the soot that comes out of most diesel engines once their off the forecourt is that much better for my kids to breathe in. The diesel-lovers go on about economy but they have to do one hell of a big mileage to balance the extra initial cost, the higher fill-up costs and what can often be heavy servicing costs too on older models. Their cars also make horrible noises after a few months too. Give me the whoosh of a high speed train a few hundred yards away any day. So rather than moan about me driving a 2½ litre petrol car why doesn't the anti-car group join me in objecting to this high speed link thing and urge their buddies in Government departments to put the investment into expediting development of electric engines, other power devices and making roads smoother and car parks more friendly and all the things that would help us all get about more happily, less stressfully and more healthily too.

I have no idea how much could be achieved in improving normal rail services and facilities, roads and park-and-ride type things with the money being budgeted for the next 20 years on the High Speed Link but my guess is that not only would it be sufficient to make massive improvements right across the nation - even in Northumberland and Sussex and Cornwall who seem to get overlooked these days - in fact why not help Wales too - but it would also bring almost instantly lots of new jobs for a much wider range of people and proportionately far less top level planners and negotiators of the calibre the train thing will attract. By the end of 2013 we could all see a difference and some of us might even say Thank you, David and vote for him after all in 2015. 
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