HS2 will destroy beauty, not deliver it

Where are the new airports and railways we so desperately need? | Will Hutton | Comment is free | The Observer

This article by Will Hutton appeared in today’s Observer, arguing in favour of building a third runway at Heathrow and the proposed “High Speed 2” railway from London to the West Midlands and northern England. He argues that infrastructure can be beautiful, as it often was in the Victorian era as demonstrated by St Pancras. Some of his other examples are not all that beautiful at all, such as the Jubilee line extension (several of whose stations are spooky places reminiscent of the ‘scenery’ of Star Trek, which of course appeas to some) and Heathrow Terminal 5. He fails to take account of the enormous destruction that any such project will entail and the environmental costs of expanding aviation.

I’ve said it before: I’m not all that impressed by St Pancras. The frontage is a folly; it’s an over-detailed, grandiose, fussy edifice, and the train-shed behind it is … well, a train shed. It feels empty. There are, of course, plenty of examples of beautiful Victorian architecture, and modern buildings rarely match up to any of them. Railway stations can sometimes be beautiful, but lines are less so, and the bridges and tunnel openings on HS2 are unlikely to be the ornate brickwork ones like those left over from the Victorian era, but plain, ugly concrete. A new line which cuts a swathe through the countryside but does not serve it is going to be more resented than increased traffic, or widening, along an existing line that does serve the places along it, as does the West Coast Main Line and all the other British main lines.

The Chilterns and the other countryside of the south Midlands is not spectacular like much of the scenery of the North, so it is considered disposable, when it is pleasant and peaceful and some of it is quite dramatic. More to the point, it is productive farmland, and this is a crowded island which cannot afford to lose too much of that to rampant urbanisation and new roads and railways. Any new railway is going to add to the tangle of railway lines of north-west London, which is clearly visible on any map (the West Coast Main Line, Midland Main Line and the old Great Central line all run westwards before they turn north). In the 19th century, those lines could be cheaply built across countryside when the population was low and some of the urban demolition could be justified as slum clearance, but none of that is the case now: it is all expensive, prime real estate in a city that needs more, not less, housing. Most of the trackbed of the Great Central line could be reused, and surely re-acquiring the land that has been built on would be cheaper than buying a whole swathe of land anew. It runs mostly across open country and serves very few towns, as HS2 is meant to, and runs mostly in a sweeping curve. While it might not be suitable for a wide-gauge high-speed line similar to the French TGV network, restoring this line will certainly restore main-line capacity and by-pass the large towns along the current West Coast main line such as Watford, Milton Keynes and Northampton. On reaching Rugby, the trains could be directed back onto the WCML and up the Birmingham by-pass line.

We are not France or Germany, countries that spread a similar population to ours across a much bigger land area, whose cities are bigger than all of ours except London (France and Germany both have four cities with over a million inhabitants; Britain has only one) and are further apart, and which have productive land to spare. We cannot afford to waste land by covering it with Tarmac or concrete. The only city in the UK whose distance from the major cities of England is similar to that of Marseille from Paris, or Stuttgart from Berlin, is Glasgow, so an upgrade to the line through the sparsely populated area north of Preston might be better than ploughing a whole new line through the south Midlands so as to cut a few minutes off the journey to Birmingham, which is only 100 miles from London. This line would cost a fortune, take years to build and when built, be accessible only to the very wealthy, if an economic crisis does not lead to it ending up in a half-finished state. To proceed with it would be an utter folly.

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