Richard Oliff - Is high-speed rail link going to hit buffer?

Richard Oliff
Richard Oliff

Whichever way one looks at it, we can’t avoid being an island nation with finite mass.

Our island space is filling up at an alarming rate with people who need homes, jobs, schools, cars and infrastructure.

An item of news during the last week was the decision to give the go-ahead to build a new 100-mile, high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham between 2016 and 2026, at an initial cost of £17 billion. They call it HS2.

It’s quite an exciting and ambitious project, which would directly connect our country’s two major cities, in what appears to be the first part of an even larger scheme which, by 2033, would see cities such as Leeds and Manchester connected at a final estimated cost of £32 billion.

Yet there is another expense. One might think that such a scheme would vastly enhance our attractiveness to foreign businesses and entrepreneurs as a forward-looking, even dynamic, country in which to invest.

But what of the people whose lives are now to be blighted by yet another massive and, no doubt, vastly under-budgeted project?

Of course, there are concerns, too, about environmental issues, as the new line will cut into swathes of irretrievable and valuable countryside.

Yet there is one very disturbing factor that seems to have eluded the political decision, begun by Labour and continued by the coalition. Will travellers and commuters in the years 2026 and 2033 be able to afford to use the service?

Lets face it, here in 2012, the cost of travelling anywhere in this country by rail is extortionate when compared with those services on mainland Europe. An annual season ticket that might cost £3,000 in the UK may be as little as £300 for a regular equidistant journey in Italy. Why is it cheaper to fly to a Spanish holiday resort than to take a train from Peterborough to Edinburgh? Above all else, who will run and profit from the finished item? I remember being excited when the channel tunnel was to be opened. I had visions of French-style TGV trains hammering through Kettering and Market Harborough at well over 100mph. Well, that dream didn’t last long, although it did prompt the powers that be to spruce up St Pancras.

This week, I came across a group on Facebook calling for the return of the hitherto lambasted British Rail, which left me wondering if we’re up to running a ‘Y’- shaped future.