Going Off Track?: HS2

February 8th, 2013
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Our controversy-monger-in-residence Thomas Anelay offers his take on the plans for the HS2 high speed rail link…

This whole super-fast train plan reminds me of when I was five and was playing with my own toy trains. I used to make a train track in a big U shape; the result of which was congestion in the hallway, damage to the countryside (wallpaper) and under-budgeting causing huge delays (there were never enough batteries to power the trains). All this is to be expected with any major piece of infrastructure, however, the real mistake I made has been repeated by men much older and supposedly much wiser than that boy of five.

In my house the hallway through which my great trainline ran covered two levels with the higher level being at the foot of the stairs. I thought it was a humongous achievement to build a bridge to this higher level – I was connecting the sparsely and cheaply furnished higher level with the art, mirrors, books and telephone of the lower. This was progress. This was the future.

In hindsight there was an oversight of massive proportions. Upstairs. The place where all the good stuff happens (sex, the comfy toilet, the shower and bed). The higher level of the hall (Manchester/ Leeds) is not upstairs (York, Newcastle, Edinburgh etc). I had taken a tiny step in the right direction, but it fell short. And now it is too late to correct my omission.

Go and look at a map of the UK. Where is Manchester? Found it? Good. Now where would you say Manchester is? North, middle or South? It’s in the middle. And high-speed whatever it’s called is going to take until 2033 (maybe) to get there. By any standard, least of all the standards that the world’s fifth largest economy should be aspiring to, this is hopeless. It doesn’t matter that barely anyone lives any further north than Newcastle or that Scotland doesn’t want to be part of the UK anymore – the proper North is a treasure trove of possibilities, people and culture and it shouldn’t be offered a half-arsed attempt to pacify its frustration with the political focus on the South.

When I was five my toy trains ran out of batteries in just a few hours and these days AA batteries are almost entirely redundant. Toy trains probably run on solar power now. The idea that the HS2 development will last for 20 years is laughable. Look at the progress in technology over the past 20 years. Look at the huge importance being placed internationally on finding renewable energy and sustainable means of travel. This trainline aims to be efficient, relevant, progressive, modern and economical in 20 more years. It hasn’t got a hope in hell. And it’s forgetting about the wonders of upstairs.

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