Doom-mongers and NIMBYs are out in force. Our poor excuse for a Prime Minister, Boris ‘piffle’ Johnson, has given them hope.
Johnson’s review of High-Speed Two (HS2) is as ill-conceived as it is needless. The only questions which remain to be answered regarding this vital piece of infrastructure are: why didn’t we build it at least a decade ago and why doesn’t the line go all the way to Scotland?
Nay-sayers say it’s expensive. No shit Sherlock. You simply can’t build new railways lines on the cheap. A large chunk of the money being spent is in compensation for compulsory purchase orders – any new line would need to foot a similar bill. Then we also have lots of tunnels – many of them not an engineering necessity – due to the public’s demand for the removal of what they deem eyesores. Sadly, many people simply don’t appear to appreciate the majestic look of a train going much faster than any other land-based vehicle.
Let’s face it, our need for HS2 is down to capacity, capacity and more capacity! Our current network is bursting at the seams. If nothing is done, our West Coast Mainline will soon be full between London and Coventry. Our East Coast Mainline from London to Peterborough is not in much better shape. The country needs new railway lines to avoid bottlenecks in our existing network, slow running of trains due to congestion and to increase services.
We also need new lines to move freight from our roads onto our railways as we take the challenges of climate change head-on. Given all this, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to conclude that new lines should be built to 21st Century standards so they can provide the fastest and most efficient train services possible today. This means building a high-speed line to connect our major conurbations and to free the existing rail network, mostly for shorter distance travel and freight. That’s why our union, supportive as we are of HS2, doesn’t feel that the current project is ambitious enough. The new high-speed line should go all the way to Scotland.
Once built, HS2 will be around for a very long-time – perhaps well over a century. Its maintenance and renewal costs for the first decades of operation will be considerably lower than what we currently spend on our Victorian network. From its signalling system to its rolling stock, everything, will be brand spanking new. This should be blindingly obvious but gets lost in the debate about HS2’s up-front costs.
We will also have increased rail capacity making most intercity journeys quicker with far less delays. If the new line went all the way to Scotland then most long-distance journeys will be on the high-speed network for a large chunk of their trajectory if not for their entirety. Of course, the connectivity HS2 brings will put rocket boosters under the economies of the North. As well as that the building stage will support thousands, upon thousands, of good jobs. The HS2 college in Doncaster is already starting to train the new generation of engineers that our railways and our economy so badly needs.
The icing on the cake could be the return of real train manufacturing to our country. One of the companies bidding to build the high-speed rolling stock has promised to erect a brand-new factory in Fife, creating 1000 well-paid skilled jobs. They are also looking to open a research and design facility in Derbyshire which will create another 500 jobs mainly for scientists and engineers and which will once again see trains designed from scratch within our shores.
In addition, their plans include creating around 6500 jobs within their supply chain across the length and breadth of Britain, thus making sure that most of the components on these trains are home-made. On top of that they will be looking to export their British-made trains across the world, making a positive contribution to our balance of trade. So frankly, when you weigh-up the economic, social and environmental gains of HS2, keeping the show on the road – or rails, rather – is a no-brainer.
I am therefore somewhat disappointed that our Labour Party has also been calling for a review. If we are dead serious about wanting to create a new economic settlement for the many, which also combats the real menace the climate emergency poses and puts in place an industrial strategy with strong links to our public procurement, then HS2 is the kind of investment which ticks all these boxes.
This is right-up John McDonnell’s street – using public investment and procurement to boost our skills, our manufacturing base and help spread economic well-being across our country. What’s not to like? We need more infrastructure projects of this nature – and fast – if we are to create an economy for the many, where no one is left behind.
James Kelly is editing LabourList while Sienna Rodgers is away.