Wednesday, 12 February 2020

What's the alternative?

I was surprised to see that Plaid are apparently signing up to the campaign to stop HS2 completely, using the hashtag #NoToHS2 on the propaganda which has appeared on social media over the last day or two.  I understand the argument that Wales should receive a Barnett consequential for the expenditure which benefits only England, although the extent to which I agree with that argument depends on whether HS2 is seen as the beginning and end of high speed rail in the UK or as just the next phase of a plan to connect the whole UK.  As presented by the UK Government currently it is a stand-alone project, and as such should unquestionably generate a consequential under the Barnett formula.  But if it were just the first phase, with a subsequent phase being a connection to Wales, then the argument that it is a UK-wide project becomes much stronger.  Arguing for either a consequential budget payment, or else for Wales to be part of the next phase, seem to me to be entirely valid stances for Plaid to pursue – arguing that another country (England) shouldn’t go ahead with the project at all seems a strange position to take.
I’m not entirely convinced by the argument that Wales won’t benefit at all, either.  Certainly, Glamorgan and Gwent won’t benefit (and will even lose out if they remain excluded), and that’s where the majority of the population live, but it isn’t the whole of Wales.  There is no necessary reason why high-speed trains are confined to operating on high-speed lines if the system is designed appropriately (and the whole network electrified) from the outset.  French TGV trains, for instance, travel beyond the high-speed network to a range of destinations on the ‘normal’ network, albeit at lower speeds.  There is no fundamental obstacle to using HS2 trains for direct services from North Wales to London, joining the high-speed network at Crewe.  It might be a benefit at the margins, but it’s still a potential benefit, subject to the big ‘if’ of whether it’s planned that way.  And, in the same way, parts of Wales west of Cardiff could benefit from a future high-speed link to Bristol/Cardiff from London.
There are, of course, sound environmental arguments for opposing the project; there is no doubt that it will do damage along the whole of the route, wherever it’s built and however many phases it comprises.  And I’m completely unimpressed by the argument that shaving time off journeys to and from London is adequate justification for such a project.  The question is, though, whether the project can be looked at in isolation, or whether we need to compare it with the alternatives.  What, in short, happens if it doesn’t go ahead?
The ‘best’ alternative, in environmental terms, is for people to travel less, but I doubt very much that that will happen if it’s left to millions of individual decisions, and I can’t imagine any elected government taking measures to prevent people from making journeys around the UK.  The demand is growing, not falling, and the question is about how to cope with that.  If rail transport is not expanded, then either road traffic will increase or else domestic air traffic will increase, both of which are likely to be more damaging than a high-speed rail network. 
Ultimately, that strikes me as the best argument for developing a high-speed rail network across the UK – fast, reliable surface transport using low carbon energy is a better alternative than continued growth in air traffic.  One of my biggest criticisms of the current plans is the use of a new terminal in London rather than the existing HS1 terminal, a decision which makes it impossible to have an easy interchange onto trains bound for the mainland, let alone have the direct through trains which I’m sure I remember we were promised at the time of the agreement to build the Channel Tunnel.  Reducing the number (or at least halting the growth) of short-haul flights should be a key element of government policy, and that means either restricting the right to travel or else providing a viable alternative.  It’s not the most ringing of endorsements, but high-speed rail appears to me to be the least-worst option available.


Alan Morrison said...

As I understand it, HS2, will be classed as a national project, as was Thameslink and many others, so the costs would be met before the Barnet divvy up - like spend on defence, foreign policy etc. - so none of the devoled adminstrations would benefit from consequentials. Quite the oppsite, they'd be paying for it.

John Dixon said...

Not quite, I believe. Rail is devolved to Scotland and Northern Ireland, but not to Wales. So, both Scotland and Northern Ireland DO receive Barnett consequentials for an 'EnglandandWales' project, but Wales 'benefits' from the project by being part of the administrative area (EnglandandWales) for rail expenditure. It also highlights the sort of problems which can arise from an utterly asymmetric approach to devolution...

dafis said...

Asymmetric, in this case, means cock eyed, boss eyed, myopic ? or just made up as they went along ?
Anyway on the matter of the rail vanity project that can only be a valid proposition if it extends to all corners of Britain. Right now there are trains running from Penzance to Inverness, so a tidy bit of track running up through or round Bristol, Birmingham and on up via west coast line or east coast line would get you to Glasgow or Edinburgh faster ( if that matters). The only game changer in my book is capacity, it triumphs over speed especially where you only shave minutes off the London-Brum trip. By having a big X shaped modern network for mainland Britain it then becomes entirely rational to have spurs off it to Holyhead, Mid and West Wales as I presume people will still want to visit those parts and even go on to Ireland. High speed trains running from Holyhead to Crewe down the main artery into London, and others running Holyhead to Crewe then on to Manchester,across to Leeds and Hull. Similarly Fishguard > Swansea > Cardiff and on to various regions of England. And the icing on the cake - Carmarthen to Bangor along the old west route for starters and Wrexham to Swansea along a route which will require serious engineering. If they could do it in the Alps then Welsh hills should not be a real problem.

Boris will have to make up his mind - go the whole hog or be found out to be the serial bullshitter that most of us see at present.

John Dixon said...


I agree with almost all of that; a new rail infrastructure makes most sense if it is envisaged and planned as a comprehensive whole, linking all corners of the particular territory. That is the basis on which most countries (France, Spain, etc.) have gone down the route of high-speed rail. I'm not entirely sure that I agree with your point about speed being less important, however - speed becomes important if we invest in rail as part of a deliberate strategy to reduce short-haul flying, which is a key element, in my view, of improving surface transport networks.

dafis said...

John - to split hairs, there's speed and marginal speed!!The time savings London to Brum are in the marginal class so project might have been declined. However the case on grounds of capacity may be stronger although silly high prices may dilute that case too.We must wait and see on that. Away from that central spine there is no doubt that gains in speed can be obtained. Boris and Co will probably move forward in the time honoured "radiate from London" style which leaves the people in the regions getting very old before the benefits are accrued.Some things never change.