There are rumblings of discontent within the Tory Party, and what is getting the Chiltern grassroots stirring is a railway. But this is no ordinary rail link – it is HS2. What that? Well, HS1 is the high speed line from London to the Channel Tunnel, and HS2 is to be the next such project, striking north by west from the capital, reaching Birmingham for starters, then Manchester.
This prospect has incurred the displeasure of Tim Montgomerie, stalwart of ConservativeHome, and yesterday he penned a piece with a “No to HS2” banner, which helpfully asserts that HS2 has no business or environmental case, and there is no money to pay for it. Now, I’m aware that Monty is a jolly clever chap, but this time he just doesn’t get it.
High speed rail links across Europe are not vanity projects: ever since the first French Ligne À Grande Vitesse – from Paris to Lyon – opened in the early 1980s, it has been about network capacity. It was not possible to go faster on the existing route between the two cities: in fact, the line could not take any more traffic.
Removing long distance passenger trains meant that there was more room for (profitable and environmentally sound) freight, and the passenger trains thus moved were speeded up and also became profitable, or more profitable. It was a win-win solution. Actually, make that win-win-win: there was also a significant reduction in domestic air travel.
What the French experience also taught was that building new lines was more cost effective and less disruptive than upgrading existing ones. Those of us who are regular users of the West Coast Main Line know all about disruptions due to upgrade work. The lessons learnt by the French have been taken on board in Spain and Germany.
Right now, there are freight operators who want to run more trains within the UK, but there is a finite amount of network capacity: some requests for train paths cannot be met. So that traffic goes by road, at a higher economic and environmental cost. Over longer distances, high speed rail would offer a credible alternative to domestic air travel, and increasingly crowded airports.Contrary to the banner on Monty’s ConHome column, the business and environmental case for HS2 is sound. More goods moving by rail, less lorry movements on the road network, less domestic air travel, and faster rail travel too. And where does the money come from to pay for it?
Put it this way – if the money doesn’t get spent on HS2, rather more will get spent over time moving people and goods using increasingly congested rail, road and air links. The UK’s competitiveness will suffer, as will the environment.
But local Tory associations in and around the Chilterns will be happy. So that’s all right, then.