Prior’s Oxon has, like many parts of the country, been disfigured – and for what?
Our editor-in-chief discusses his answers to the UK’s recently canceled HS2 project
Two miles from my home, HS2 has carved a scar across the landscape, across which trains might eventually take passengers between London and Birmingham more slowly than they do today.
What’s surprising is that, despite a local village effectively being cleaved in two, one sometimes could find, if not wholehearted support for HS2, at least shrugging acceptance that people needed to go places and that maybe it would all be for the greater good.
Not anymore. Given its stratospheric cost rises, which have spiraled from an estimated £30 billion in 2011 to more than £100bn since the project started, it’s currently unclear whether HS2’s Birmingham to Manchester leg will ever be built. Or whether the line will end in Old Oak Common, rather than central London.
The leg to Leeds has already been scrapped. If you were to go looking for any goodwill for this shambles locally, you would find that it had evaporated.
Not just locally, in fact. This week, Lord Hague called the project a “national disgrace” and the director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, Paul Johnson, told Times Radio that it was always “obviously” going to be of “little gain relative to pretty much anything else you could have done with the railway or transport system, whether that’s making rail connections across the north vastly better or actually building a bunch of bypasses and improving the roundabouts in the road network”.
There’s the nub. Next time you’re sitting near a town centre you would’ve rather driven around, adding to local congestion and making life worse for residents but having the kind of day in which you couldn’t take public transport if you wanted to, just remember that every man, woman and child in the UK will pay £1500 to build a railway from Birmingham to Wormwood Scrubs.
There’s a feeling that Britain is uniquely bad at infrastructure, although I find this offensive to a country that hosts some of the world’s finest engineers. What we seemingly do routinely is allow greed, incompetence and laziness, or a costly – and deadly – combination thereof, to be rewarded or go unpunished.
That’s how we’ve ended up with the cladding scandal, the Post Office scandal, the sewage scandal and more, all dragging by for years without those responsible being held accountable.
When I was much younger and a little more zealous about the automobile, I used to imagine Tarmacking over railways with a network of toll roads reserved exclusively for trucks and buses. One can easily wait for 45 minutes for a train holding 1000 people, which goes from somewhere you weren’t to somewhere you don’t want to go.
It would be much more convenient to board a semi- or completely autonomous bus, taking a dozen of us from where we are to where we need to be, which could merge onto a geofenced, moderate-speed highway, then divert off without stopping every vehicle behind it.
As time goes on, it becomes more technically feasible than ever: we have the batteries, fuel cells, geofencing, apps, wireless network connections and autonomous driving technology to allow it.
Trains are extremely energy-efficient, it’s true (that they roll so freely is why they can’t follow each other closely), but in a world of effectively limitless renewable energy, if we’re prepared to use it, that matters less than convenience.
Obviously, my idea was a daft one that wasn’t going to happen when I was young and won’t in the future. And we probably couldn’t enact it if we wanted to. But as I sit, wondering where my £1500 has gone, it feels less barmy than ever.