Letters: The HS2 project

Time to rethink the HS2 project
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Marilyn Fletcher (Letters, 12 August) speaks the unspeakable. The question about what is the point of HS2 seems to have been largely overlooked.

It seems to me that the mooted new line is an expensive act of national snobbery which we can ill afford at a time when the coalition is expecting us all to tighten our belts.

The time-saving for a journey from London to Birmingham is quoted as 30 minutes,which is neither here nor there except for a few people whose time is so valuable that they will be prepared to pay a substantial premium compared to the existing fare.

I question the validity of the 30-minute figure. HS2 is now proposed to start from Heathrow and deposit its Birmingham passengers on the fringes of that city. The true comparison should be between city centre to city centre times, and these will inevitably be far closer when the connecting times at each end are taken into account.

Existing train services already beat centre to centre times for travel to most parts of England when compared to air travel, and are probably not far from matching the times from London to Glasgow and Edinburgh.

The only reason I can see for continuing with this plan is that we have to be seen to be keeping up with the Joneses, or perhaps that should be the French?

But France and Britain are different countries. The former is far larger in size and has substantial areas of undeveloped farmland through which new TGV lines can be driven without causing misery to residents of towns and villages along theway. The TGV network could be said to be a necessity; HS2 is not.

R P Wallen,

Nottingham

Kyn Aizlewood (Letters, 13 August) asks if it’s fair that the Government should spend £1.57bn on plans for HS2 over the next five years, so that billions can then go on subsidising ultra-fast HS2 trains, when our front-line services face imminent cuts. How do we square a desire for a rail network that meets tomorrow’s rail capacity needs, when our coffers are patently empty?

Solution: ask the staff at DfT. For £2bn – just a bit more than the £1.57bn, never mind the £17bn eventual cost of HS2 to Birmingham – we could have DfT’s alternative to HS2 called Rail Package 2. It’s all buried in the HS2 paperwork. And yes, before you ask, it can meet our capacity needs too.

It gives Hammond his high-speed rail network (125mph), which Branson could help him get to go even faster. And Osborne will be pleased because it even has a better benefit ratio than HS2 (£3.63bn compared to £2.7bn). So why can’t we save billions and have what the Government say is the best value option?

Hilary Wharf,

Great Missenden,

Buckinghamshire

Marylin Fletcher says that we don’t need a high-speed train from London to Birmingham. This may be so but a new line is required on this axis because the existing line is at or near capacity.

It is sensible to build this new line to a high specification so that when it is extended north it can provide a high speed line to the North of England and Scotland.

The release of capacity on the existing line could improve commuter services into London and Birmingham and stations between as well as carrying more freight traffic, thus reducing trucks on the M1 and M40.

Roger Hand,

Stoke St Gregory,

Somerset

Your correspondents have missed the point of spending almost £18bn on the high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham. A couple of months ago, Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith explained on the Today programme why it was needed. When asked where the houses would be built that would be lost as a result of the government’s decision to remove gardens from the brownfield sites designation, Mr Goldsmith said, “The highspeed rail network will allow the country to be more decentralised”.

So the aim is make Birmingham a dormitory suburb of London: HS2 will, after all, make commuting from Birmingham as quick as for Grays or Guildford.

Coming soon: spending £20bn on replacing Trident to boost tourism by providing exhibits for a war museum.

Paul Burall,

King's Lynn,

Norfolk

Human rights in Guantanamo

Robert Verkaik’s powerful dispatch from Guantanamo Bay (“Caught in America’s legal black hole”, 9 August) rightly focuses on the plight of Omar Khadr, the 23-year-old prisoner who was only 15 when originally detained, and who has been held at Guantanamo since he was 16.

Shamefully, the USA has held numerous children at Guantanamo during its eight-and-half-year existence. In Khadr’s case – as with so many Guantanamo prisoners – there are claims that he was tortured.

Instead of putting Khadr through an unfair “military commission”, the US authorities should try him in a civilian court in conformity with international standards, or free him and repatriate him to his native Canada.

In bringing a former child detainee before a military commission the USA is guilty of yet again undermining human rights principles at Guantanamo. The commission process should be abandoned in favour of US federal civilian courts.

Tim Hancock,

Campaigns Director,

Amnesty International UK,

London, EC2

Ethiopia election not ‘pre-ordained’

Your African correspondent’s cursory dismissal of Ethiopia’s May elections as pre-ordained in the piece about Rwanda’s elections (“Queues to vote in Kigali but change is not on ballot”, 10 August) is misleading. The governing party won a landslide victory because Ethiopians voted overwhelmingly for more of the same: more schools, clinics, roads and other key infrastructure, more devolution of power to the regions and localities where people have a say in how development funds and taxes are spent.

Ethiopians are seeing thebenefits of the country’s fast-growing economy in their daily lives. During the election, TV debates were broadcast on nine key issues, such as the economy, foreign policy and development policy. Opposition parties were given full access to these debates and had plenty of opportunity to put forward their policies on TV, radio and in Ethiopia’s many newspapers.

Voting was very close in many seats, especially in the capital Addis Ababa, but opposition parties failed to win enough votes to gain many of these seats.

We have worked tirelessly to build strong democratic institutions only to be castigated by those who have difficulty accepting the will of the Ethiopian people.

Your writer is duty-bound to give a full and comprehensive account of what transpired during the elections and we would urge all correspondents to visit our country before passing judgement on it in such a damaging manner.

Tewolde Mulugeta,

Head, Press Section,

Ethiopian Embassy,

London, SW7

Nudge theory is only short term

Andy McSmith’s article provides an excellent summary of the principles of nudge theory (report, 12 August). But what it and the original work of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein underestimate are the controversies and inconsistencies in the academic research on which these ideas are based.

For example, one key “nudging” principle is to make the “desired” activity the default on the assumption that people are much more likely to stick with this than change. This “nudge” can provide the basis for encouraging people to sign up for organ donation or pensions; in each case the public may be automatically opted in, so must opt out if they don’t wish to be involved in these activities. Research shows that initial uptake is enhanced under these conditions. But this idea overlooks other key principles of human decision-making that may modify or even nullify this “nudge”.

For example, when people are actively involved in making a decision they are more committed to it and will stick to it longer, even when the outcomes are not as good as expected. This shows that being involved in the decision is vital in sustaining commitment to the action. “Nudged” decisions are associated with less commitment so people will give up on them more readily when outcomes are disappointing.

So “nudging” people may be effective in the short term. But in the longer term it may be less effective, particularly in situations where people are likely to experience a mixture of both positive and negative outcomes. Since longer-term change is usually the primary objective, we may be better encouraging active involvement rather than a “nudge”.

Professor A John Maule,

Director, Centre For Decision Research,

University Of Leeds

During my days in the Army (I left in 1960), I was told that in an attempt to improve the health of the soldiers in the North African desert, the urinals had a picture of a Hitler or Mussolini face painted on. The “spillage” dropped dramatically and the desert became healthier.

I also remember using an old-fashioned urinal which had a bee as part of the maker’s trademark, fired into the glaze. Perhaps the nudge theory has been around for a long time.

Colin Appleby,

Manchester

Charity offer to ‘war porn’ vet

In the Karl Marlantes interview (12 August), the author of Vietnam war bestseller, Matterhorn, was asked about my critical remarks describing his book as “cartoon war porn of the lowest sort”. Marlantes responded that he “has written a novel, not a political tract”.

I was not, in fact, referring to Matterhorn’s politics or lack of; Iwas referring to the quality and style of the book’s prose. In any case, Marlantes went on to admit that “we killed hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and dropped Agent Orange all over the country”. But it is still not clear to me whether or not Marlantes feels any regret or guilt about having taken part in that war.

I suggest that, as a gesture of good will, Marlantes should donate half of his earnings from Matterhorn to an organisation or charity concerned with aiding the victims of war. If he does so, I will do likewise with the earnings from my own novel of the Vietnam war, A River in May.

Edward Wilson,

Halesworth,

Suffolk

Grim welcome for UK visitors

Last week, I met a friend at Bristol airport, an EU citizen arriving from Berlin, who endured the gruelling experience of having to queue for more than an hour at midnight to have her passport checked by the UK Border Agency.

Earlier that week, I returned from an extended train journey in Europe. I travelled through nine countries, including four from the old Eastern Bloc, and the only time I had to show my passport during the whole journey was to leave and re-enter the UK.

Yet again, I feel ashamed of our British “island mentality”. Why do we treat foreign visitors in this way? And why on earth have we not joined the Schengen Area?

John Rees, Stroud,

Gloucestershire

Wait a sec, what time is it?

On my side of the bed I have an old analogue radio, and my wife has a digital on her side. These are used independently as required and overlap only briefly as one is tuned out, and the other turned on. There is, for some reason, a delay between the two received signals, with the analogue in the lead followed approximately six seconds later by the digital.

I was surprised to discover that the time pips follow the same pattern, so there are two Greenwich time signals, one six seconds after the other. Which is correct?

I imagine it would be analogue time, because it was established earlier, but with that system due to be phased out, adjustments will clearly have to be made.

I would be interested to know whether any important deadlines have been missed (or hostilities declared?) because of this lack of standardisation.

Grierson Gower,

Bath, Somerset

Camera threat seems to work

I am amazed that in all the reporting and commentary about speed cameras there has been no mention of the method adopted in this area (Letters, 14 August). Here we have no fixed cameras, but we do have notices warning motorists that there may be one ahead; we have a few mobile units, so the possibility is real.

I do not have any statistics, but my clear impression as a driver was that traffic speed has been noticeably reduced; I no longer drive, but I can assure you that I took notice of the signs as I passed them. The serious problem of “slow down/speed up” is, of course, avoided. There is also a real possibility that this method costs less than fixed cameras.

David Bishop, Guisborough,

Cleveland

Rooting around

Jo Dunn (Letters, 13 August) is correct about the dangers of thorn-apple (Datura stramonium), but the plant more usually referred to in the US as fireweed is Epilobium angustifolium, known in the UK as rosebay-willowherb, mostly harmless though rather persistent when unwanted.

Two of thorn-apple’s popular names in the US are jimson-weed and locoweed, the latter name being derived from the Spanish word for crazy, one possible consequence of consumption.

Stephen Coane,

Harrow, Middlesex

Perspectives on gender equality

What do men and women want?

Your article on the gender gap amongst FTSE 100 executive directors provided stark figures. But what kind of equality do men and women want? The figures on education and earning show that women now outperform men up to their early thirties when they hit the parenting gap.

Research on women’s preferences suggests that roughly one in five wants the home role, one in five puts career first and the remaining 60 per cent opt for work-life balance. What we don’t know is how many men and women genuinely want a fifty-fifty world of equality where men and women are as equally represented in childcare, teaching and midwifery as they are in engineering, the Armed Forces and FTSE directorships.

If this equality of choice and opportunity is what men and women want then we also need to consider that most of the deprived adults who end up homeless, in prison, addicted to drugs or alcohol, taking their own lives or being killed are men, and most mainstream men end up working longer, paying more tax and living considerably shorter lives.

If men and women are truly committed to closing the gender gap that shows up so starkly at the top of our biggest private firms then we have to address the parenting gap too. Do men and women want to have the same parenting opportunities and choices that each other have, for dad to stay at home with the kids while mum works longer hours than her single colleagues, for separating parents to give dad custody of the kids with mum paying child support, for men to choose fertility treatment as a way of having children on their own?

Maybe we should ask the next generation what they want for their futures before they hit the parenting gap, so men and women can work together to create the future they really want, not the future that the ideological few say they should have.

Glen Poole,

Chair, The Men's Network,

Brighton & Hove,

East Sussex

The real cause of social division

Your headline “Revealed: The gender gap in British business” makes a basic error, confusing correlation with causation. That most executive directors of FTSE 100 companies are male is, according to you, evidence of anti-female sex discrimination. This is dangerous and spurious sexist nonsense.

Your assumption that high-achieving men have an unfair advantage is an insult to all those men who have worked hard to achieve senior positions, and it infantilises women by portraying them as helpless victims.

The hijacking of theequality debate in this “identity politics” way masks the issue that is by far the biggest cause of division in our society: disadvantage based on social class, income and background, which affects both men and women.

I can see no evidence of any “glass ceiling” keeping women down either. So, in the interests of equality, I look forward to an Independent feature exposing the dreadful sex discrimination evident elsewhere in society: for example, most state benefits and pension payments going towomen, or that most people in prison, or doing dirty and dangerous jobs, are men.

When shall we see positive action to redress these terrible examples of gender imbalance?

Edwin Webb,

London, SE10

*****

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