x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

UK comes late to high-speed rail party

The British government is determined to join countries such as Germany, France and China with its £34bn HS2 super-fast rail project. But protestors want to see it hit the buffers.

The entrance for Crossrail's Westbourne Park portal, where tunneling is about to commence, is seen in London, U.K., on Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. The U.K. government has asked four bidders to submit proposals to supply about 60 new trains and build a depot in west London for the city's Crossrail project. Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg
The entrance for Crossrail's Westbourne Park portal, where tunneling is about to commence, is seen in London, U.K., on Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. The U.K. government has asked four bidders to submit proposals to supply about 60 new trains and build a depot in west London for the city's Crossrail project. Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

For more than a decade, successive British governments have put off decisions about critical infrastructure.

They have dithered over a new runway at Heathrow, over where to bury nuclear waste, over whether to electrify major rail routes and over whether or not new nuclear power stations should get the go-ahead.

So it is a relief that the current government has finally decided to push ahead with one significant major infrastructure plan - to build a £34 billion (Dh188.93bn) Y-shaped high-speed railway from London to Birmingham, the United Kingdom's second city and then on to Leeds and Manchester, the two cities in the north of England that have the most commerce and the biggest populations in the region.

The French, the Japanese, the Spanish and the Germans have had high-speed rail for nearly 30 years. The British, meanwhile, have been satisfied with trains that are nearly 30 years old on what is mockingly referred to as the country's "flagship" east coast mainline.

High speed 2 (HS2) is likely to set its own records.

It, like Crossrail - a long awaited cross-London rail link that is being constructed at a cost of £2bn a year - is likely to take two decades to build. In China, it would probably take two years.

This is a shame because HS2, supported by all three political parties, and other infrastructure projects, could feasibly help the British economy out of the hole it is in by generating some growth, at least into the moribund construction industry.

However, at the rate it is progressing, several more construction cycles will probably have passed before ground is even struck.

Last summer there were rumours that HS2 was to be quietly ditched. These have been categorically quashed by the government.

The new route will run through some of MPs' and ministers' backyards and the project could cost them their seats in Parliament, with homeowners whose houses are blighted by the plans for the scheme loudly condemning the project. Yet the prime minister David Cameron and the finance minister George Osborne have decided to stick with the plans - despite opposition - perhaps mindful that they are woefully short of other "big ideas".

The argument for the superfast train line, with engines pulling coaches at top speeds of 250kph, is that it will reinvigorate the north and help to rebalance an economy that has become too focused on the capital and its financial services jobs. But there are fears that the economic stimulus argument has been oversold.

There are lots of critics - more than 70 groups - who believe the government's economic case for building HS2 simply does not stack up. StopHS2 argues the project is "fundamentally flawed" saying most people will be travelling from the north to the south so the north-south divide will be exacerbated and the north and the Midlands will actually lose out rather than benefit.

"Fifty-five percent of the economic benefits are based on the cash value of time, no one works on trains and every business user is worth £70,000 a year - it's basically a train for the rich that everyone else is not only going to have to pay for the construction of but also have to subsidise throughout its lifetime as well," says the StopHS2 campaign manager Joe Rukin.

But it is not just about cutting journey times. The UK has, in its rail system, an unlikely success story on its hands. Despite an unpopular privatisation, frequent delays and expensive tickets, rail is more popular than ever. Last year the UK's railways carried 1.46 billion passengers and passenger numbers climb every year.

After years of decline the network now carries more passengers than at any time since the 1920s.

The rail infrastructure owner Network Rail says the southern section of the west coast main line - currently the quickest rail route between London and Birmingham - will be "effectively full" by 2024.

So HS2 is desperately needed to generate more capacity. Providing fancy super-fast trains, admittedly with very expensive tickets, will allow more space on the existing network for those who cannot afford or get to the high-speed route.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) the UK's lobby for major businesses, also supports the line.

"We cannot sit on our hands while the West Coast Main Line is set to reach full capacity by the 2020s," says John Cridland, the CBI director general.

"It will boost the economic potential of some of our biggest cities, driving growth and creating jobs across the country.

"This is the same bold, long-term thinking that helped the Victorians build our original network."

Journey times between Birmingham and Manchester will virtually halve to 41 minutes, while the London to Manchester trip will be reduced from two hours and eight minutes to one hour and eight minutes.

Other advantages claimed for the line are that it will free up space for more freight to be transferred from road to rail and bring 4.5 million flights a year to rail.

Meanwhile, the Tory heartlands in the picturesque villages around the Chilterns - an area of outstanding natural beauty - and Staffordshire are set against the high-speed line because it will rip through their pretty environment.

But a high court ruling into government consultations on the line, which was given on Friday, was a "landmark victory" for the project, the rail minister said.

The government won nine out of 10 points being challenged, which Simon Burns said effectively gave the "green light" to the high-speed rail project. However, the consultation into compensation for those affected was ruled "unlawful" by Mr Justice Ouseley. The anti-HS2 group 51m has been granted leave to appeal.

Government ministers insist they have carried out consultation correctly and have recently implied they will introduce legislation to smooth the path of the project. It remains to be seen if the politicians can actually hold their nerve in the face of a divided country.

 

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