Gleaming new trains would whistle through the countryside. Traffic would be taken off the roads, and domestic flights made redundant. Manchester would be connected with Madrid, and Birmingham with Berlin along a seamless network of European high speed rail-links. When it was first announced in 2012, HS2 was meant to represent the best of a modern, technology-driven Britain, capable of matching the finest infrastructure built anywhere in the world. The trouble is, to use an unfortunately apt phrase, it has gone badly off the rails.
True, plenty of countries have rail projects that run into challenges. France has witnessed massive cost overruns on its TGVs, and only this week it emerged that the Spanish rail operator spent €258 million on trains that were too big to fit into its tunnels. But for all the amusement at Madrid’s misfortune, Britain is the biggest laughing stock of all.
When David Cameron first formally announced the decision to build a high-speed rail link from London to Birmingham, and on to Manchester and then eventually on to Scotland as well, he described it as “vital for Britain if we’re going to succeed in the global race”. France already had its TGV network, and high-speed rail links were criss-crossing Germany, Italy and Spain, while China was building bullet trains that set new global benchmarks for 21st-century travel. Indeed, since 2008 China has built 23,000 miles of high speed rail links, with speeds of up ro 217 miles per hour. Our modest, single line was at least something, if hardly earth-shattering by global standards.
And yet even that is proving beyond the capabilities of a British state that has descended into routine incompetence. The cost of the line has tripled from the initial estimate of £33 billion to more than £100 billion, and there is still no sign that the first trains are ready to run. Even worse than the escalating cost is the scaling back of the ambition. First of all the extension to Scotland was axed, even though that was by far the most useful part of the project (lots of us fly to Scotland instead of getting the train, while hardly anyone flies from London to Birmingham).
And now we have learnt that speeds might be reduced as well, and the number of trains running every day slimmed down, to save on costs. At this rate, we can expect a single steam train a day to puff its way through the Chilterns, perhaps starting somewhere in Buckinghamshire, and ending up close to Solihull, carrying a few tourists and train spotters. Everyone else will be told to get the coach because its too expensive to run the high-speed trains for them.
Only last month Italy, not a country traditionally famous for the efficiency of its rail network, opened up a new line that connects Milan and Rome in only a little over two hours. Instead of representing a modernised, forward-looking UK, HS2 is turning the country into a global laughing stock. Our government is chaotic, our builders slow, and nothing gets finished as planned or on time. At £100 billion, that is unfortunately a very expensive joke – and it’s on all of us.
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