Thursday, March 11, 2010

High speed off the rails

It would be lovely to be whisked through the countryside from Birmingham to London so fast the whole journey would take only 46 minutes.

But will it ever happen and can we afford it?

Now the Government has published the route for HS2, the high-speed railway line intended to make Britain compete with other European economies, everyone is drooling over how marvellous it will be.

We’re the only major country in Europe without such 21st century infrastructure, we are repeatedly told by the scheme’s many supporters.

How much, though, are we willing to pay to reduce the journey time between Birmingham and London by half an hour?

The price tag for this little scheme is a cool £34 billion. And we can be certain that will have doubled by the time it’s finished.

The development process will take years. If you live in the leafy Chilterns, you will not want the quiet of your countryside disturbed by some silver bullet train flashing by at 225 mph.

So there will be NIMBY protesters all down the line demanding that the line does not run through their back gardens.

And who can blame them? Few people would relish their peace being disturbed by half-a-mile long express trains rocketing past.

It will take millions of pounds just to get planning permission to build this route and the delaying tactics of expert lawyers will ensure the process drags on for years.

Meanwhile, any simpler, cheaper, quicker transport developments will be put on hold because the high-speed rail link will dominate the planners’ thinking for years to come.

It is claimed the development has the overwhelming support of the West Midlands business community. This is simply not true.

While many business people would be happy to see the route developed and would enjoy the speed and style of the new trains, they don’t all think it is worth the time, trouble and expense involved in getting there.

They are split over whether there should be two Birmingham stations – one in the city centre and another at the National Exhibition Centre – or one and, if it’s only one, where that should go.

And many of them really do not think the time saving of a new line would be worth all the expense.

The Birmingham Chamber of Commerce claims the new route would stimulate the West Midlands economy to the tune of £2.24 billion. That’s a lot of money.

But the Chamber admits this increase would come over a period of 60 years. It works out at just £370 million a year.

How can a business organisation seriously expect to support a scheme which brings in £2.24 billion over 60 years in exchange for investment of £34 billion cost. If the Chamber's members conducted their own businesses this way, they'd all be bust by now. Why should we expect the taxpayer to shoulder such a burden?

It would no doubt be fantastic to see sleek new high-speed trains dashing through England at breathtaking speeds. No doubt they would be comfortable, safe, reliable and the last word in 21st century chic (unless it snows and the trains get stuck in a tunnel as they do en route to Paris).

Sadly, we do not have the time to indulge in these fantasies. And we certainly do not have the money. This is the high-speed train to nowhere.

No comments: