HS2 is unpopular in the Shires and many think the budget could be better spent crossing the Pennines. So why are all parties so keen to steam ahead with it? The answer may lie beyond our shores.
I love travelling by train. I don’t of course mean being crouched in the vestibule of the delayed 17:45 from London Paddington to Reading. But sweeping along through our green and pleasant land, passing sous La Manche, or winding through the mountains on the continent can be one of the great pleasures in life.
Those against the proposed HS2 may understandably feel very differently. The case has been well made that, in terms of doing the job of moving people around, HS2’s £50 billion budget could be much better spent on linking northern cities such as Manchester and Leeds. Conservative voters in the shires – specifically the shires of Bucks, Oxon and Warks - are asking why Birmingham and Manchester’s gain should be their pain.
But ultimately, HS2 is as much a symbol of political prestige as it is a people-shifter. It’s part of a well-established pattern of other countries in Europe building or upgrading to high-speed lines in the last decade.
Spain’s sleek AVE (Alta Velocidad Española) service is a good example, which first connected the capital Madrid with Seville in the poorer rural south of Andalucia at speeds of 300 km/h, covering the 292 miles in just two and a half hours. Passengers get a full refund if it’s more than five minutes late (it almost never is). The Madrid-Barcelona service now out-competes the once frequent hopper flights between its two biggest cities. Together, its 3,100km AVE network is now the longest in Europe, second only in the world to China.
It too faced many of the similar controversies and despite reportedly never having turned a profit, has energised and knitted together the regions of a famously fragmented country. Similar high-speed services have been created in France, Germany and Italy. There’s even talk of a truly pan-European network, connecting Scandinavia to Sicily and Paris to Bratislava.
Britain meanwhile is playing catch-up, a fact that won’t have gone unnoticed on the international stage. HS2 is part of the fightback, alongside new direct services to Marseille, Amsterdam and Germany through the Channel Tunnel in direct competition with budget airlines.
It’s the cachet that such a new line brings that indirectly could do much to help bring about a ‘Northern powerhouse’. Despite the entire inevitable rumble coming down the tracks from large swathes of the electorate, it’s against this wider backdrop that HS2 should be viewed. The momentum for travel by rail is very much forward.
Mike Cheshire is an account director at Camargue