Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Half full or half empty

Whether or not better communications links have the business impact that is claimed is unclear to me.  I’m sure that poor links are unhelpful, but less convinced that good links, in themselves, will make the level of difference often claimed.
When it comes to rail links, I am convinced that better, faster, more reliable links will encourage a shift from road or air to rail, and are worth doing for that reason alone.  The claim that Wales could lose 21,000 jobs as a result of the HS2 link from London to Birmingham and points north is a figure which I’d treat with some caution, though.
As I recall, the French experience with the TGV services was that demand grew faster, and to a higher total level, than any of the advance projections suggested; but that the vast majority of those travelling were doing so for leisure rather than business purposes.  I rather suspect that the UK experience will mirror that - if a network is ever actually built.
And that ‘if’ was my main concern with this story today.  Although those quoted didn’t actually go so far as to say it, it almost seemed that they were arguing against building HS2 at all, because of the possible adverse impact on Wales.  It’s a tempting conclusion from a Welsh perspective – but it would be the wrong one.
The problem with consideration of high speed lines in the UK is that it’s all being done on such an ad hoc basis; there is no master plan, no vision for an integrated transport network linking up major cities across the UK as well as linking with cities on the mainland of Europe.  The result is that there is a danger of pitting areas against each other.  There’s nothing wrong with a bit of lobbying, or even a lot of lobbying, to be first in the queue; but it rapidly becomes destructive if the queue only has room for one.
I think there are good arguments for the link to Wales and the West to come ahead of the northern link, but if we can’t have first place then it’s better to be arguing for an early extension to the queue than to argue against the northern link.  An excessively negative approach could simply mean that we’d all lose in the end.

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