Editorial....27th February, 2020
Half term prevented me commenting last week but HS2 was inconveniently approved over the school holidays.
Alsager correspondent Andrea Bloomfield wrote in last week complaining, raising the usual objections — loss of ancient woodlands, mosses and meres, the cost etc — but I’ve been trying to look for reasons to support the scheme. Not all that successfully, as it transpires.
For a start, if you follow discussions on Twitter about HS2, its supporters seem to rapidly resort to abuse when challenged over the loss of habitat, suggesting they know opponents are correct.
Supporters argue that the worst-case scenarios include areas of woodland the line would pass close to, not destroy. They say its construction will cause the loss of woodland the size of a small pocket handkerchief, and the line itself will offer a valuable habitat (small mammals and rapidly moving machinery being renowned for co-habiting safely).
That aside, I spent part of the holiday reading up about HS2, trying to change my own mind but the only positive move was to decide that HS2 is wrongly named.
It does allow for High Speed trains but its main benefit will be to Free Up lines. A better name would thus have been FU2, but I can see that might not have been deemed appropriate. (This is not an entire column to justify that one joke).
Railway capacity is maximised when all trains on a line are running at the same speed; fast trains can run together quite closely, and slow trains even closer.
Having fast trains and slower local ones running on the same line is bit like the Isle of Sodor: Thomas The Tank has to wait in a siding while vain Henry the Green Engine whooshes by with the express. Because Henry is so big and fast and takes ages to stop, poor Thomas sits there for quite a long time, and has to give way soon after to make way for pompous Gordon the Big Engine and his express.
Without Henry and Gordon, Thomas could chuff along slowly and quite close to Edward the Blue Engine in front and James the Red behind — in other words more frequent local services.
This is not stressed enough with HS2, probably because having “fast trains” on a CV makes a politician or civil servant look cooler than “more slow services for people living north of Northampton”.
So: hive off all the fast trains and freight to a new line and FU2 starts to make more sense.
This is more, not total, sense. Over half term I caught a Northern train to Manchester (football museum, worth a visit, film show includes Congleton Town Reserves) and the train was clean, modern and on time, both ways.
But this is not the case at all times and across the North West and FU2 is not a fast solution to overcrowding and old trains, if it means northerners have to wait until 2035 or whatever it is for a better service. (As ridiculous as going to the doctor and him or her saying you need an urgent operation but the waiting list is two years).
Still, using the capacity argument as a basis for HS2 makes more sense, and more people might accept it as the least-worst alternative if it meant more local trains on the old lines.
However: this argument itself is undermined by supporters of HS2 explaining how good it is.
This is because there will be two types of fast trains on HS2: captive ones, that only use HS2 lines and go fast all the time, and conventional compatible units, that can run both on the HS2 infrastructure and on the existing railway, just running faster for the HS part of the journey. But does that undermine the freeing-up argument? Those conventional compatible trains would still be faster than local trains and still be using the very lines HS2 supporters say would be freed up, including lines out of Crewe.
It also appears that London stations are struggling with capacity. HS2 gets trains out of London stations faster, making them more efficient: the alternative is longer trains and longer platforms.
A cynic might suggest this is the only reason HS2 is being created; it’s noteworthy that conventional compatible units head north before leaving the HS tracks; no-one is suggesting having fast trains south and joining slower local lines into London, as apparently this is impossible. Digging up woods in the north is apparently easier than building new platforms down south.
The Government is also belatedly spending heavily on buses, but bus use is falling. The two groups who use buses the most — the young and old — are apparently less keen than in the past.
For the young, this is because they don’t need to travel to hang out; they can do it at home on their phones. Meanwhile, the rising cost of public transport and falling cost of cars mean older people prefer to drive. Is the demand for public transport peaking just as the Government spaffs £100bn up the wall on HS2?
Talking of roads: they really are shocking. If we were the French, we’d be out rioting: we pay tax on owning a car, tax on petrol and tax and all the associated expenses to do with motoring, yet successive governments have been having a laugh at our expense over road repairs for years.
It’s now been estimated that it would take £11.8bn ad 14 years to get the nation’s roads up to scratch.
That’s clearly not going to happen. Why, for only 10 times the cost and twice the time you get a fast railway a lot of people don’t want. Maybe FU2 is a good name in more ways than one.