Nicholas Faith: High-speed trains are the future


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The Great British Public has found a new and exciting project to hate, and as a result is happier than at any time since the Millennium Dome became such a splendid target at the end of the last century. What makes HS2 an even better target is that it is a new railway, designed to link most of Britain's major cities, for the Brits hate the idea of spending taxpayers' money on railways. Improve a road and it's an "investment", do the same to a stretch of railway track and it's a "subsidy".

The opposition is the more curious in a country whose people are supposedly concerned by the state of the environment. Moreover, Britain is lucky that it requires well under 300 miles of new track to relieve both the West Coast Main Line and its equivalent the East Coast Main Line, which account for the majority of long-distance rail travel in Britain. By contrast, countries like France and Spain require thousands of miles of new track to serve their major cities.

The WCML is no ordinary railway, but one of the most iconic pieces of infrastructure in history. Built largely by Robert Stephenson, George's more gifted son, and opened as early as 1840, it demonstrated to the world that a "railroad" could serve cities hundreds of miles apart.

Amazingly, it has survived and prospered and today provides services faster than any other 19th-century equivalent – and indeed the first bullet trains launched by the Japanese in 1964 were little, if any, faster than those on the WCML today. Unfortunately, the £8bn or so spent on improving the WCML over the past decade has stretched its capacity to its limit.

Indeed, today the WCML – and to a lesser extent the ECML – are already overcrowded, because they are used by four distinct types of traffic: the fast non-stop trains between major cities; stopping services serving intermediate towns; freight trains; and direct services using the WCML as part of their journeys to cities like Chester and Wrexham, as well as towns in Yorkshire and North Eastern Lancashire that now find it difficult to gain access to the main line.

As traffic builds up at the same rate it has for decades, other users, like commuters in such substantial communities as Rugby, Northampton or Milton Keynes, are already finding that the trains they use are overcrowded. And freight traffic is increasing fast as the railways can now handle the containers which would otherwise be transported on lorries.

Craftily, the opposition has based its case on a Big Lie, that the only advantage of HS2 is to speed up the journeys between a handful of major cities, whereas in fact speed is merely one of the advantages, as it is with a bypass on an old road. Indeed how anyone can claim that the WCML does not require bypassing is as ridiculous as claiming that a Roman road is perfectly adequate for the demands of today's road traffic.

In fact the the story of HS1 is an effective retort to the Smaller but even more Effective Lie which reinforces the Big One and concerns the supposedly disastrous effect of HS2 on the countryside, particularly on the Chiltern Hills and their delightful beechwoods. This is Range Rover country inhabited by well-orf and thus influential Tories. But of course HS1 was constructed through the heart of Kent, a county with equally delightful countryside and equally vociferous inhabitants. Yet after the line was completed, not a squeak was heard from even the most fervent of environmentalists.

For railways are not necessarily intrusive – more than £250m is being spent on HS2 to ensure that the inhabitants' repose is disturbed only by the sound of the residents' limos. And town-dwellers on the route of HS2 could be shown the effects of high-speed trains on Ashford, since HS1 actually passes straight through the town and the inhabitants' only complaint is that too few international trains now stop there.