So far there seems to have been a lack of reasoned debate on the plans for HS2. Let’s hope – with the launch of the Government consultation on the proposed London to Birmingham (and then beyond) high speed rail link – that is all about to change.
The consultation must be just that; a proper assessment of our transport problems and the supposed solutions High Speed Rail offers, rather than a slick-sales job which leaves the public hearing only half the story.
Certainly now is the time for a reality check to remind people of a few truths about the way the Great British public gets about. To start with we need to remember who uses the railways. The answer is: not the least well off. Probably fairly, high speed rail has been called ‘opera on wheels’ – a middle-class benefit, heavily subsidized by taxpayers. In general, rail services receive some 16p per mile per passenger from the Treasury. Even if HSR was more socially inclusive, it would still only help a fraction of the nation’s travelling public. 92% of all passenger miles take place on the roads and that will barely change even if £17 billion is spent (on the London to the Midlands leg of the scheme.) creating a service to get relatively rich people to and from the nation’s second city slightly quicker. We need a broad transport vision from ministers, not a blind faith in a proposal with insufficient evidence to back it up.
Ministers have so far tried to sell high speed rail as a great green project and an economic wonder. Recognising the flaws in both these arguments the Government now wants us to believe it is about eradicating the north-south divide, yet where is the evidence to say a super-fast link to Birmingham won’t simply make our second-city a dormitory town for London? We have yet to see it. Maybe over the next 151 days (the duration of the consultation) we will see it.