The High Speed 2 railway line is a big construction project that is stagnating due to severe criticism and skyrocketing development costs. I am a big fan of railways and I admit to being a big fan of Thomas the Tank Engine when I was a kid. I also used to daydream about building big railway projects with my Hornby Railways sets and HS2 is like a dream train build for some. However HS2 is one big railway project I don’t support and I’d rather the government scrapped it and replaced it with a different rail project, preferably linking the regional and local cities in the North and the Midlands.
My reasons for this is because of how the cities connected to HS2 will not earn much and it will just funnel more wealth from the Northern economy to London. In the past I have written about how my home city has overgrown to the point it has no room for more people, overbuilt itself to the point it has no more services to sell and sucked the equality of wealth distribution across the country that Birmingham and Manchester are over 10 years behind London. That is not only unfair, its leaving no more room for bright ideas. The South East is so overbuilt that it is fast losing its green spaces and people.
A long time ago during the golden age of steam in the 1930s there was a lot of distribution of productivity and wealth across the country. Back then Britain had the best railways in the world with the fastest trains. We had the biggest railway network dating back to the Victorian era with trains that could top 100 miles per hour. Delivering freight and passengers across the country with equal amounts of money and trade to every city and region across Britain.
But that sort of wealth distribution doesn’t exist anymore. Railways don’t even deliver that kind of wealth anymore because of a diversification of transport and public spending regulations.
Now when the railways were first built in Britain in the early 19th century the average top speed of a train was around 40 – 60 mph. Today’s high-speed trains can travel up to 220 mph. But those speeds are only achievable on modern rails that are very straight with few curves and rigid rails. Although Britain has trains with those potential speeds they can’t top their maximum speeds because they are running on outdated rails that have a lot of curves. European countries ripped up some of their old rails and built brand new ones using new modern construction techniques and machines. Instead of pickaxes and dynamite to blast through rocks, they used mobile cranes to lay the tracks, TBMs to grind through rock and excavators to dig through the countryside.
Population densities is also another factor. Britain is the most densely populated country in Europe. It has most of its population concentrated in England, specifically in the South East. In the years that it has built up in density as well as number of people there isn’t even any room left to build a new railway without smashing up property and green fields. When the French built their new rail lines they had much more wider areas of open fields and their people’s towns were not so densely packed together. So they could easily construct lots of High Speed rail lines with little in the way of obstruction. Britain has no such space like that for new infrastructure.
But we don’t have to do that or prioritise speed just to get the North as rich as London. Some countries like Switzerland are very rich and they have trains that are just as fast as Britain’s. Singapore is one of the richest countries in Asia and they don’t even have a high-speed rail link. All they have is intercity railways connecting the cities and a number of rapid transit networks.
According to a recent report the costs of HS2 is spiralling out of control and is likely to hit £106 billion. Over 20% more than what it was originally planned and so far £7 billion of that money has been spent. Also, the benefits of HS2 will not be felt by the cities that are to be connected by the rail link because the line is more likely to be used by commuters instead of investors looking to invest in Birmingham and Manchester. This means that it won’t close the North-South divide it will just channel the economic growth of the regions down to London.
Having lived in London all my life I have noticed that having a fast train network connecting the city of London with Romford and Southend does not bring opportunities for wealth and development in the Home Counties. All it does is create new homes for people who then travel into London and make more money for the capital. In Romford where I live now, there is a newly built railway called Crossrail going straight from Surrey to Essex right under London. Before Crossrail was built, there were two railway lines linking London to Essex and throughout the time that they have been around the Home Counties have never seen economic growth as London has. Instead, they have gradually amalgamated with the capital to become like outer districts of London. Wherever I go in Romford I feel like I’m in an overstretched city rather than an Essex market town.
Using that as an analogy that demonstrates that HS2 will not bring much income to the Midlands or the North of England. What we need to do is follow in the example set by Singapore. What they did to evenly distribute their wealth is set up special enterprise zones that acted as hubs to lure investors with backing from the state to set up the infrastructure and services to create capital for those areas. It worked out really well for Singaporeans and they still don’t have a high speed train to do this, they managed it with just intercity trains and a rapid transit network.
Recently there has been plans afoot to make changes to the way the treasury distributes money so that the regions north of the M25 have a fair share of public funds. This involves devolving wealth making to them to provide funds where they are needed for the wellbeing of the people and the country instead of being based on the economic returns. That’s why the treasury has always favoured London and the South East.
When Doctor Richard Beeching made the cuts to the railway network in the 1960s he decimated the links to the country from west to east. But he kept the lines going from north to south and that lead to the northern parts of the country becoming disconnected from economic growth. At the time of the cuts the people of Britain had ditched public transport in droves and gone for cars so that they had their own independent mobility. But now that the railways have become more valuable to the nation and the economy campaigners are fighting to reopen those lines and that is what we should focus on to bring investment to provincial towns.
In fact there is a resurgence in massive investment amounting to billions of pounds. The railway franchises are spending vast sums of money replacing their decades old rolling stock to improve passenger comfort, speed and efficiency on the lines. The next step should be to reconnect the lines linking Britain from East to West so that the productivity and prosperity of the country can be distributed evenly.
We don’t need an expensive brand new high speed railway line to connect London to the rest of the country. Britain needs a network of exclusive enterprise zones connecting the cities close to each other. London has grown to big for its boundaries to need another railway line.