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In defence of the high-speed-rail project

18 January 2012


From Mr R. L. Skelton

Sir, — Once again (Letters, 5 August), I feel compelled to write in support of HS2. Your leader com­ment (13 January), by support­ing the well-heeled nimbys of Bucking­hamshire, will only confirm what many already think, which is that the Church of England is interested only in middle-class, middle-aged Middle England.

Your argument concerning plants and bio-diversity is totally spurious. Modern agriculture, which you appear to defend, is bad for the great majority of plants and wildlife, whereas it is well known that rail routes, by providing safe corridors largely free from man, have enormous bio-diversity, and also provide links for the spread of both plant and wildlife across the country.

I agree that it is vital that those who suffer detriment are adequately compensated, but it is interesting that we did not get objections from the same nimbys when the M40 passed along basically the same route. There is no comparison between either the environmental damage or noise levels resulting from motorways and high-speed rail lines, though, of course, they cannot drive their 4.2-litre Range Rovers on the railway. Ask anyone living close to HS1 and the M20.

As always, the objectors concentrate on the time saved, but the real reason why HS2 is essential is that the West Coast Main Line (WCML) is virtually at full capacity now, and the East Coast Main Line (ECML) very soon will be.

HS2 will release capacity on both routes for freight, commuter, and local trains. Tinkering at the edges by abolition of first class, etc., would not, as has been proved over and over again, give this extra capacity. HS2 has national advantages well beyond its own route.

The costs and timescale are, as always, with UK projects, much higher than for similar work in Europe, but much of this is due to our arcane planning laws, and the fact that well-heeled nimbys can delay projects vital to the national interest for many years: nuclear power and the A14 are other examples. The additional work to satisfy the Tory voters of Bucking­hamshire will add more than £1 billion to the costs, and make the line much more difficult to operate.

I must agree that our railways are very expensive, but, again, much of this is due to the way the railways are organised. We now have the worst of both worlds, with far more state intervention than we ever had under British Rail. Far too many decisions are taken for political rather than operational reasons, e.g. the electrification to Wales before that to the East Midlands, which would have given a much faster return on the investment; and the procurement of new trains from Japan rather than Europe or the UK, even though they are 30 per cent more expensive and less suited to UK conditions. I cannot, however, agree that the railways lack investment at the moment.

There is more money being spent on the railways, even without HS2, than at any time for many years. We have Crossrail, Thameslink, three significant electrification projects, and much new rolling stock, together with many small but vital projects, such as the Hitchin flyover and the Ordsall curve. I agree that the current structure is highly flawed, but I still think that, overall, the companies do a good job.

Magdalene College
Cambridge CB3 0AG

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