Leader: A glimpse and gone for ever
Posted: 11 Jan 2012 @ 00:00
THERE is a jerky film on the BBC website taken from an aeroplane. It follows the route earmarked for the new High Speed Two rail link (HS2) from London to Birmingham. The camera kinks its way out of London, racing at speed along what looks like a rail or road corridor, then darts off across field after field, until Birmingham appears in the distance. The planners, naturally enough, have chosen a route that steers clear of human habitation as far as possible. This means, however, that it runs across miles of agricultural land. Those living in the 3100 properties that are now expected to “experience a noticeable increase in noise” might be expected to object, but plants have no say. The Government expects that the plants’ spokespeople, local residents reinforced by a few environmental campaigners, will be drowned out by those who benefit: first, those employed in the construction of the new line, supposedly 20,000 in London alone; and second, those who benefit from shorter journey times to the capital. Yet the damage to miles of countryside is a loss to more than a few country-dwellers. Such developments are irreversible, and will affect future generations.
Bold civil-engineering projects will always have their critics. There may well be times when the good of the many requires the sacrifice of the few. But the cost of this project, £32 billion, will require the sacrifice of the many, especially if all the imponderable benefits in the value-for-money document fade away, as many have done already since the first valuation. Nor are we persuaded by a project that reinforces the dominance of London at the expense of the regions. Temporary construction jobs cannot be compared with the jobs that might arise were this sum to be used to boost employment away from the capital — particularly in the early years of a technological revolution that might well see an end to the idea of long journeys to work.
We should like railways. The existing network provides a potentially efficient alternative to the destruction caused by the motor car, especially useful as fossil-fuel stocks diminish. Public transport has historically enabled the poor to travel when private transport is beyond their means. The management and pricing of the railways at present, however, give no grounds for confidence in HS2. As it is, fares are predicted to rise 27 per cent above inflation to make the scheme halfway viable. Meanwhile, the rest of the rail network creaks from lack of investment, high fares, and the inefficiencies of public/private ownership. A serious effort to shape the railways for the 21st century would not look like this.