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HS2: a scheme bound to go off the rails

The events industry is, generally, in favour of HS2. A lightning quick connection between London and the North surely can only be good for business, right?

Perhaps I’m straying from the party line here, but HS2 leaves me feeling uneasy.

To understand why, we must first turn our attention to Britain’s first steps into Railway Mania. In the 1830s Britain’s national railway network began to take shape, spurred on by port towns and major industrial cities. The likes of Bristol, Southampton, Portsmouth, Liverpool, Manchester – it’s a long list – all become accessible to each other in just a couple of short decades.

However, all the lines were operated privately, backed by private investors. This meant that where a line ran wasn’t strictly in the national interest, but rather the shareholders’ interest. There were more than 100 private railway companies in Britain in the 19th Century, and every one of them was a financial failure in the end. Despite passenger and freight traffic easily covering the running costs, the sheer capital needed to build one could never be recovered. See debt, bankruptcy, and even suicide.

Unlike some of our European cousins, Britain never had a national plan for its railways. So, when the government introduced the Railways Grouping Act in 1921, the ‘Big Four’ (Southern Region, Western Region, North Western, Midlands and West Scotland and North Eastern, Eastern and East Scotland), it was hoped, would result in pooled resources (and less squabbling between rival lines) and lots of money.

You see, a railway can be profitable if you buy one that is ready made. History, though, has proven that those who undertake the building always end up in the gutter.

The budget for HS2 stands at £56bn of largely taxpayer money, and the expectation is that it may even tip £100bn. I fear Chris Grayling hasn’t read the history books.

There is, though, something else that worries me about this project: the route. First of all, why Euston? Of all the London terminals I can’t think of a worse one, especially when the architecturally stunning, and criminally underused, St Pancras is just next door. St Pancras is the terminal for the Eurostar, or HS1 if you prefer, for Heaven’s sake, so why not join the two lines up in the same station? The existing tracks join at Chalk Farm: easy.

Soon the Euston Road will be littered with holidaymakers from Birmingham running with their bags between Euston and St Pancras to catch their train to Paris. It genuinely makes no sense to me.

Then there’s the issue of Birmingham. Our friends at the NEC, I’m sure, were hoping that HS2 would come through Birmingham New Street Station which, not only would connect it with the largest events venue in the UK, but also with Birmingham Airport. But no, it will stop at the new Birmingham Interchange Station. This is still a fair way away from both the NEC and the airport, so a small metro train will link the two. It’s not the end of the world, but seems like a less sensible, and more inconvenient, idea.

While it does pass through Leeds and into Manchester Piccadilly, big players like Liverpool, Sheffield, and Nottingham are all missed off the list despite the line running relatively close by. There are some branch lines, but these will be operated by other franchises.

There is little public support for HS2, and it’s one of the few things that seems to unite The Daily Mail and The Guardian, and I too am sceptical about the true benefit it will bring. At the outset, we were told trains would reach speeds of up 250mph, but this has been quietly redacted from the official website. If I’m travelling from London to Manchester, I’m going to set aside the entire day regardless of whether it takes 2hr15 mins (like it does now) or 1hr45 mins. I’m not really gaining any more time… especially if the rest of the network is on strike again and I can’t get to Euston in the first place.