Saturday, 24 September 2011

High Speed YOU!

The debate continues to rage. High Speed 2. Why "waste" all that money when all we need to do is get up half an hour earlier.
Just one of the comments I've heard in this, the great transport debate of our times.
Brum to London in 49 minutes catches all of the headlines. It's fast, it's sexy, and panders to our childhood dreams of superfast travel, making the world a smaller place. But for me, the 49 minutes is almost a side issue. The real benefit of a new rail line is the capacity it provides address our ever increasing demand for rail travel.
Recession? What recession? I'm still - even now - bemused whenever I'm on the train as to where everyone is going. Board a Virgin service at Birmingham New Street on a wet September Tuesday lunchtime - a service, let's not forget, that has a 20 minute frequency to London - and it's still full. There is more demand now for rail travel than ever. You'll have to go back to the golden age of steam (before Dr. Beeching got rid of thousands of miles of track) to find any similar demand. Even though we're confused and often annoyed at ticket prices, we're still very much living in the "age of the train", as Sir Jimmy Saville used to gargle.
And demand on the Birmingham - London market is relentless. Chiltern are an increasingly important player with their Marylebone alternative, London Midland now run 3 trains per hour down the West Coast Main Line with their stopping service, to add to Virgin's tilting Pendolino offering. And still the trains are packed.
The "alternative" to HS2 comes in the suggestion of upgrading the West Coast Main Line. Cheaper than HS2, say its advocates. But effective? I can't see it.
We spent the best part of 10 years upgrading the West Coast Main Line not so long ago. Do we want to go through all that again? And there's only so much you can do with what is still, effectively, a Victorian-based design. And the end result of another decade of drilling, hammering and goodness knows what other disruption will barely scratch the surface of what we really need, which is capacity to address our future demands. The West Coast Mainline suffers because it's virtually full, with fast trains, slow trains and freight trains.
Is HS2 a pure vanity project? That's the kind of argument that is still being put forward. Of course it's big, bold and in your face - but by golly public transport sorely needs this! Why don't we scrap the HS2 idea and spend the money on boring, mundane, but really important local public transport, some cry? Take away the gorgeously-pouting HS2 and we're left with the ugly duckling of local buses and trains - both are vitally important, but here's something radical - why don't we invest in both? Local transport may be boring, but it's absolutely vital as the backbone to our society - and it'll be here long after the economic crisis has been and gone. Indeed, it's vital to our long-term recovery as a nation.
Once HS2 has it's own track, the WCML can be used with increased capacity for new services and links, attracting even more people to the benefits of using the railway to get from A to B. A sensible way forward?
I can't see any reasonably effective alternative.
HS2 isn't about some mythical creature that isn't welcome here. It's about me and YOU having our future transport requirements invested in. It's long overdue. It isn't solely about getting from Brum to London in 49 minutes. It's about linking our nation's great Cities like never before, opening up all sorts of possibilities, not only for business, but for leisure and visiting. It's about saying, eventually, we don't need to rely on environmentally-damaging flights to Europe - linking HS2 with the existing HS1 gives us a real alternative to reach Europe. In the next 2 years, DB will start to run trains through the Channel Tunnel, with one-train journeys possible from London to Frankfurt, Cologne and Amsterdam. Add connectivity to HS2 and the possibilities are impressive indeed.
The future of the railways through HS2 is exciting. Let's hope Transport Secretary Philip Hammond MP is minded to kick-start this dream into a much-needed reality.

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