“Either HS2 or more motorways!”

Map of the route of the High Speed 2 railway line, showing a main branch from London to the Midlands, branching north-west for Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester and north-east for Leicester, Sheffield and LeedsWe must invest in high-speed rail or new motorways, warns HS2 chairman (from the Guardian)

The Guardian reported yesterday that Douglas Oakervee, the chairman of the HS2 project (the new high-speed railway line from London to Birmingham and several northern cities) has said that if his line is not built, Britain will need to build more motorways “if we do not wish our standards of living to deteriorate and our world status eroded”. He also told an audience of civil engineers that their predecessors “would be turning in their graves if they knew how much we had allowed their infrastructure to decay”.

He may have forgotten, but Britain’s “world status” is very likely to be hugely eroded anyway next year when Scotland votes on whether to become an independent country. If it succeeds (and it has a very strong chance because of the present government), the remaining parts will come to be seen as simply a small country, a rump of a once great empire, and very rapidly the status of the other Celtic fringe nations will arise, particularly Northern Ireland whose major populations are of Scottish and Irish origin. So there are bigger threats to Britain’s stature than this, and the loss of Scotland could even diminish north-south traffic, particularly if relations with the new Scottish state sour.

Second, there would be no need to build entire new motorways and nowhere to build them. There are already two six-lane motorways serving the London-Birmingham route, and while the M1 is over capacity (the M40, as anyone who has ever used it will know, is not), there is some relief from the A1 which carries traffic from east of London to Yorkshire and the north-east. Some of these routes need improving with perhaps some new link roads built (e.g., a by-pass from the A50 to the M6 avoiding the Stoke-on-Trent area), but that’s not the same as building entirely new long-distance motorways.

He is also wrong to say that the infrastructure built by his listeners’ predecessors had “been allowed to decay”; the truth is, it was ripped up in the 1960s by politicians who preferred roads over rail. The HS2 route broadly follows the old Great Central Line which ran from London to the East Midlands and ran in a great sweeping arc from Amersham to Leicester, passing through only one other major town (Rugby) and one other large village (Brackley), unlike the Midland Mainline which is the sole link from London to the East Midlands now. Not all of that can now be rebuilt unless the houses and businesses are acquired, although why that is not preferable to buying up whole new tracts of land is not clear.

This is yet another case of an infrastructure industry chief threatening the public that general decline threatens if we do not accede to their demands, at huge public cost in terms of both money and of residential and industrial property destroyed (the Heathrow third runway lobby being the other major example). This is a crowded country, distances are relatively small compared to those in France and Germany (so the need for ultra-high-speed travel is much less) and land is at a premium, and if we cannot sacrifice Green Belt land to much-needed house-building, why should we sacrifice it to a railway line that, if even completed, will mostly be used for premium-rate express trains, some of which will hardly be used at all, given their inconvenient edge-of-town stopping points in the East Midlands?

We should call the industry’s bluff: we cannot afford the money or the space for their grand schemes, unless we follow the existing track-beds, and we do not need to cut 15 minutes off the journey to Birmingham. We need houses to live in and farmland to grow our food and shops to sell them in; all these will be destroyed if HS2 goes ahead. It must not.

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