THE battle over HS2 is becoming more heated. Fuel has been added to the opponents’ fire by an admission by the French that they had put too much of their budget into building new high-speed lines instead of maintaining their historic network.
We are not falling into that trap. The Government has at last realised that our Victorian railway system needs updating and improvement, and huge amounts of money are now allocated to doing that.
The West Coast Main Line has been upgraded, including widening a long stretch through the Trent Valley north of Birmingham to four tracks. This has enabled the speed and frequency of trains to be increased.
Two major main lines (Great Western and Midland) are to be electrified, and work on the former is well under way. Reading Station has just been completely rebuilt at vast expense.
Junctions at Grantham and Hitchin have been rebuilt with fly-overs to improve traffic movement, helping to speed the trains from Northumberland to London on their way.
Lines closed 50 years ago are being re-opened, not only for the benefit of local users, but also to speed up longer distance trains by widening the choice of routes available, and providing more direct freight routes.
Also, a moderate sum is being spent on a short length of additional track, which will enable container trains from Felixstowe to the North West to take a more direct route and keep them out of the way of the intensive passenger traffic in north London and on the West Coast Main Line. It will also remove hundreds of lorry journeys from the roads.
The sum involved in this is a small fraction of the amount to be spent on improving the A14 road. It could be argued that it actually makes that unnecessary. So the people who say that the money to be spent on HS2 would be better spent on the existing network are overlooking the fact that more money is planned to be spent on the existing network each year than on HS2 during its construction.
It is noticeable that many of those opposed to HS2 are not opposed to the principle, merely to the route, or the cost, or the stopping points, according to their particular interest.
Those who object to the route complain that the railway will ruin their area with no positive benefit to themselves. They are like the Chancellor’s father-in-law who said that fracking should not be done in the pretty south, but in the desolate North East, where nobody lives. Nobody of any importance, he meant, of course.
A railway does not ruin the landscape to anything like the extent of a motorway, and it took quite a long time before people managed to put a stop to motorway construction.
In general, we quite like to see trains in the scene. Look at the fuss people made 50 years ago, when it was Government policy to close railways, even if they did not use them (because if they had used them, there would not have been such a strong case for closing them).
Now the situation is fundamentally different because people do use the railways.
MPs who are opposed to HS2 are mainly those whose constituency is directly affected, such as the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, who complains that HS2 will not have a station there.
Much has been made of the fact that the first stage of HS2 will save only a few minutes between London and Birmingham and it is a lot of money to spend for such a small saving in time for such a localised area. HS2 is principally to benefit the north, including Northumberland, because it will provide a quick route to bypass the congested area between the Midlands and the capital. This will benefit us, but it will also benefit them because it will remove our fast trains from their local tracks and make their journeys quicker and easier, as well as ours.
Nothing is ever completely black and white and a good alternative to HS2 has been suggested by a freight consultant, namely that instead of a new high speed passenger line with stations not always conveniently situated for the principal settlements, the money should be spent on a completely new freight line running the length of the country and deliberately avoiding urban areas.
High speed freight trains do not need to be as fast as high speed passenger trains therefore the line would not necessarily have to be so straight. This might help to keep the cost down. There would need to be some more inland freight ports such as that near Daventry, but there would be no need to build expensive new passenger stations.
Like HS2, this would be linked into the existing network at strategic points, but would free up the present lines, whose chief advantage is that they have stations in or very near many towns. Some small towns are unfortunately bypassed at present and this strategy could enable them to access the railway network. Network Rail already has a wish-list of new stations it would like to provide.
The freight operators complain that it is very difficult for them to find enough ‘paths‘ among all the passenger trains to develop their business as much as they would like. This would overcome that difficulty and remove huge numbers of lorries from our over-crowded roads.
John Wylde is the author of Integrated Transport — a Will-o’-the-wisp? (www.john-wylde.co.uk). This book, £14.95, is available to readers for £11.95 post paid and signed by the author. Order from the Herald office.