Nicholas Faith: Denigrating big projects is our national sport

The noise over HS2 has been grossly exaggerated. All people are really concerned about is the value of their dwellings
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The Independent Online

It has taken M'lord Astor, with his accusation that northern Labour MPs welcome HS2 because it would destroy the lovely – and oh-so-Tory – Chiltern Hills, to confirm my long-held belief: that virtually all the opponents of HS2 are, shall we say, off the rails. For the objections, which have flooded in with renewed intensity since the Government gave the go-ahead earlier in the week, reveal an automatic negative attitude to any project, an attitude reminiscent of vice-president Spiro Agnew's infamous phrase "the nattering nabobs of negativism" who, in the case of the English, have made denigrating major projects a national sport.

The most obvious flaw in the antis' arguments is that the line is all about speed. It isn't. The time saving – especially to Scotland – will be useful, but its primary purpose is as a bypass to relieve the two major north-south main lines, especially that on the west from London to Birmingham and points north.

The line to Birmingham and beyond, built in a mere 10 years after 1830, proved to the world that railways provide the ideal means of travel between major cities hundreds of miles apart. This is even truer today because travel by electrically powered trains is uniquely environmentally friendly – which makes me wonder why environmentalists have not been loud in their welcome for the route. Is it because, secretly, they don't want people to travel at all?

The next piece of anti-rubbish is that fiddling with the present routes would provide a solution. Those living along the route will remember the 10 years of upheaval, and taxpayers the £10bn or so it cost, to upgrade the line to Glasgow recently, leaving it with very little scope for further expansion. This obvious fact was spelt out by Network Rail, which in today's climate has been ignored because it knows the facts. It suffers from the dread disease known as TBE. It is Tainted By Experience. In other words, Network Rail knows what it's talking about.

As it is, and even with 11-coach trains, the West Coast line is jam-packed and continues to flourish even in a recession. To prove the point, I would call as witnesses the inhabitants of Milton Keynes and other towns on the route who are already suffering overcrowding. I would also call on M'lord Berkeley, a rather saner titled gentleman than Lord Astor, who as a noted proponent of freight by rail is calling for more room – "paths", in railway language – to allow the hundreds of thousands of containers unloaded at Southampton and Felixstowe to use the rails rather than the roads to reach the North of England.

Of course, there will be some disturbance, and a few hundred people in the Chilterns will have their rest disturbed by the new line. And, obviously, the actual construction period will be messy. But, in reality, all those affected are really concerned with is the value of their dwellings, not the noise, which has been grossly exaggerated. Here, I can speak from experience. I live a couple of hundred yards from the East Coast Main Line, one of the most crowded in Britain, and my nightly rest is disturbed only by the noise of ambulances and police cars – and occasionally the cheers from the nearby Emirates Stadium.

Justine Greening, the Transport Secretary, could have made life easier for herself – and for the inhabitants of the Chiltern Hundreds – if she had accepted the alternative plans prepared by some of the team responsible for the route of HS1 from St Pancras to the Chunnel. This, after all, passes through the heart of Kent, as full of influential Tories and environmentalists as Buckinghamshire, but it avoided any criticism before, during or after construction by largely following the routes of the M2 and M20. The HS2 alternative would have exploited the route of the M40 and included a far shorter stretch through the Chilterns, and would also have included a stop at Heathrow, which would have delighted the Welsh and Westerners. Oh, and it would also have provided a direct route from HS2 to HS1 and thus the Chunnel. But no one expects the Department of Transport to show imagination. On the Continent, there are separate Ministries of Railways, staffed by people who know what they're talking about. But what's that got to do with it?

Of course, there are projects – like Mayor Boris's dream of an airport on the Thames – which deserve a rough reception. But there are others which either should get built but don't because of the opposition, or which prove a triumphant success despite the hysteria surrounding their construction. A North-South aqueduct, a practicable and by no means a world-class engineering project, could stop the annual hose-pipe ban furore in the Home Counties, but it remains an impossible dream. Meanwhile, the many opponents of the Millennium Dome have been curiously silent recently. Perhaps they're too busy trying to get tickets for the O2 Arena, probably Europe's most successful entertainment venue.

Nicholas Faith is the author of 'The World the Railways Made'