Nicholas Faith: Opponents of this visionary high-speed rail project are guilty of a Big Lie

The oddest element of the story is that claims of the unspeakable damage that HS2 would allegedly do to the Chilterns have been allowed to go uninvestigated

Wednesday 21 September 2011 19:34 BST

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. After all, transport accounts for a substantial proportion of carbon dioxide emissions and travel by trains – especially if they are powered by electricity – is far less damaging than road transport, which also occupies a lot more space and kills and injures tens of thousands a year.

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 and transformed Stephenson into an international engineering superstar.

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 carrying capacity to its limits.

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 being shipped in their thousands to the Midlands and the North from the major ports of Felixstowe and Southampton, loads 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.

Ignoring the real role to be played by HS2 has enabled most of the objectors to appear reasonable, although some of them have worked themselves into a ripe state of hysteria like the woman in Buckingham who claimed that the power needed by the locomotives would require the construction of a new nuclear power station, which would infallibly blow up. This is no more absurd than some of the opposition to the country's first high-speed line, HS1 from London to the Channel Tunnel, which culminated in a meeting of a coven of witches at a particularly sacred spot called Kits Coty, near the route.

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, the Garden of England, a county with equally delightful countryside and equally vociferous inhabitants. Yet after the line was completed, not a squeak was to be 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.

The oddest element of the story is that the British media, some at least of which normally try to give both sides of a question, has made no effort to make a comparison with the story of HS1, to investigate the reality of claims of the unspeakable damage which would allegedly be caused to the Chilterns, or even to see the effects of the steady growth of traffic on the old lines. This has left the case for HS2 to the Government and to the poor old anoraks who are actually going to build the railway. And we should remember that the once much-derided Dome is now one of Europe's favourite entertainment hotspots.

Nicholas Faith's books include 'The World the Railways Made'

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in