The UK’s rail network has long been underfunded and out of date; aside from the very short Eurostar (High Speed 1) line running from Folkstone to London, Britain does not operate a single line where the trains operate at a higher speed than 230km/h. The European countries that do operate trains with at a higher speed than 250km/h include France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Sweden, the Netherlands and Switzerland, as well as the western parts of Russia and Turkey. To put things into perspective, the Eurostar line in the Netherlands is around the same length as the UK’s; Belgium’s is near twice as long, not that I’m suggesting these countries are not technologically advanced, they certainly are, but their comparably small size next to the UK must be taken into account.
How has this been allowed to happen? It is not as if trains are not historically valued in the UK, quite the contrary in fact. Stephenson’s Rocket is surely seen as one of the nation’s great innovations, as is the Flying Scotsman, the underground is omnipresent in London, and the Hogwarts Express shows how trains retain cultural significance in the UK. So where did it all go wrong? It is not that consumer demand for railways is dropping either, in fact it is the fastest growing method of transport used for long distance journeys. A fair few people will be quick to blame Thatcher and Major, but it can be easily countered that New Labour had 13 years to completely turn the railways around, but did not. The truth here is there has been a bipartisan neglecting of the railways which has finally reached the point where a generation has grown up with this poor service, and the UK taxpayer has given up demanding better. Or has perhaps forgotten that a better service could exist.
In the age of the much admired Japanese bullet train and German developments such as the Transrapid, shouldn’t Britain feel embarrassed to be comparably living in the dark ages? Britain maintains its position as the third largest economy in the EU, and the future of its economy clearly relies on the service sector and technology, yet with the rails in the state that they are this contrast seems irreconcilable.
Hurrah then for the formal launch in January 2009 of the High Speed 2 project (HS2), which received the backing of the current coalition government in May 2010. The ‘Y’ shaped route will first travel from London to Birmingham, branching west to Manchester, and to the east up through Nottingham, Sheffield and ultimately to Leeds. It gets better, the train could potentially travel up to 400km/h (250mp/h), reducing the current London to Leeds travel time from 2 hours 20 minutes to 1 hour 20 minutes, and the current London to Manchester time of 2 hours 8 minutes to also 1 hour 20 minutes.
This, I hope you agree, is a good thing. What is not however is the fact that the current timetable puts the start of construction on the first Birmingham to London line at mid-2018. Government reports emphasise that this would mean the first trains running in 2025. Do not be fooled however, trains to Leeds and Manchester will not be running until well after 2030. To put that into perspective, a baby born today would be at university by then, a scary thought. That, by the way, is if the timetabled completion is on time, and when has British rail ever been on time? The second downside is the price, reportedly £32 billion. That, by the way, is roughly the GDP of Luxembourg, which is – per capita – in the top 3 richest countries in the world.
I hope I have emphasised Britain’s need to catch up, but this figure is nonetheless an imposing one, and it will most surely go over budget. The initial cost of the UK’s nearly cancelled Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers was £3.9 billion (potentially £6.2 billion) a cost so high that the Navy were informed that the country may not be able to afford them, and this meant the scrapping of many valuable staff and equipment. The risk of a double dip recession looms, can such finances be committed to one project and one gamble?
A problem is that the world is rapidly changing, and the government cannot be assured that demand for rail will exist in 20 years, could the internet reach a capability where most business is done via video conferencing? Whilst the ability to travel from one place to another is becoming easier and faster, potentially the need to do so is also lessening. I fear also that this proposal may be technologically superseded by other nations before this project is finished, and Britain would again be on the back foot.
Admittedly I have taken a line halfway between urging that the UK should immediately catch up with the rest of Europe, and half suggesting that the need to catch up may not be necessary, I admit that this is very hypocritical, though the question mark was in the title for a reason. I confess that I cannot predict how important such a rail service would be in the future; there is much to be feared from both building it and not needing it, and not building it and needing it.
The underlying point is that this is a technology available in some parts of the world today, and yet here are plans to give it to us in 15-20 years, and at a massive cost to the overstretched taxpayer. The greater evil it seems to be a luddite and not progress, if we do not act now then we face falling further behind the rest of Europe, but my absolute biggest point of all is that it would have made more economical and technological sense if it were launched during the boom following Labour’s 1997 electoral victory, back then it would have definitely made sense, and fitted within New Labour’s ethos. I hope not, but I fear that UK may have missed the boat. Or rather, train.
As ever, I recognise that my opinion is insignificantly just one of billions, and the more the better; feel free to enrich this article by giving yours too below. I certainly hope you enjoyed this and if you did then please check out my other articles.