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Britain’s high-speed stupidity

Friday/weekend blog

There has been an awful lot of heat and noise, but very little light, as various politicians and pundits and other gravy-train riders reacted with predictable confected fury to the government’s decision to scrap the northern leg of the HS2 train. One of the many complaints is that, if Britain is to be a modern economy, then we should have loads of high-speed trains just like France and Germany. Unfortunately, those making this argument seem to have forgotten what little they may have learnt in their O’Level geography

Fast trains in a tiny country?

Now let me explain why it is totally ludicrous to have high-speed trains in a tiny country like England

I’ll make this part of my blog today simple so, were any politicians to be reading it, even they might understand.

France is a big country – about 640,000 km². Germany is quite a big country too – 357,592 km². The UK is a small country – about 242,000 km². England is an even smaller country – 130,000 km². So, France is 5 times the size of England and Germany is almost 3 times as large as England. Both France and Germany have extensive high-speed rail networks. It makes sense to have high-speed trains in a large country. It doesn’t make sense to have high-speed trains in a small country.

Now let’s go a bit deeper. The French train route from Paris to Lyon to Marseilles can probably be seen as comparable to the UK train route from London to Birmingham to Manchester in terms of how it connects major cities. But the differences in distances are huge. Paris to Lyon is 292 miles, whereas London to Birmingham is only 128 miles. And Lyon to Marseilles is 488 miles, whereas Birmingham to Manchester is a mere 86 miles.

Or if we take Germany, the route from Berlin to Frankfurt to Munich could also be compared to HS2’s London to Birmingham to Manchester. The distance from Berlin to Frankfurt is 341 miles – much more than London to Birmingham’s 128 miles. And the distance from Frankfurt to Munich is 244 miles – considerably more than Birmingham to Manchester’s measly 86 miles.

The much greater distances in France and Germany justify high-speed rail networks. But squandering over £100bn on cutting just a few minutes off the train time from London to Birmingham and then even fewer minutes off the train journey from Birmingham to Manchester is utterly ludicrous.

There never was and never will be any need for a high-speed train network in England. The distances are simply too short. On the now-cancelled Birmingham to Manchester leg, the train would hardly have enough time to get up to speed before it had to slow down. Why the political, bureaucratic and engineering geniuses who planned the whole thing couldn’t see this more than minor problem defeats me.

Why does this matter?

This matters because building a high-speed line is much expensive than building a traditional (say Intercity 125) line. The track has to be much higher specification to support the higher speeds and the line has to be much straighter than a conventional line meaning there is less flexibility to go round geographical hindrances like hills. So, if Britain really needed extra capacity on the London to Birmingham to Manchester route, we should have just built a much cheaper traditional rail line. Or even cheaper still, upgraded all the signalling to allow more trains per hour on the existing track.

One other argument for building HS2 that has surfaced more recently is that some people are now using the environemental excuse for the thing. They claim the line will provide more capacity for freight trains thus reducing the number of lorries on our roads. But if carrying freight is the priority, you don’t need a high-speed line or even an Intercity 125 line. Most freight doesn’t mind if the train travels at just 50 mph or 60 mph.

I hate to be positive about any politician, but Sunak has made the right decision by scrapping the Birmingham to Manchester 86-mile section. I find it more than slightly surprising that, during all the furious arguments about the decision nobody, as far as I know, has mentioned the utter stupidity of having high-speed trains in a tiny country like England. But maybe this is to be expected as we now live in an age of unreason where opinions matter much more than facts?

6 comments to Britain’s high-speed stupidity

  • ern

    Simply brilliant, unanswerable and, IMCO, the way to go. Will it ?

    What a daft question.

    Thank you David, once again.

  • A Thorpe

    It seems that politicians want to be world leaders or follow world leaders if they are behind. No thinking is applied. Was this Brown following the French? They ignored all the points you raise and most still are. Gone are the days when businesses men built the Victorian system. Now we have crony socialism where bad decisions are made by politicians for the benefit of businesses and at the cost of taxpayers. They never pay a price for being wrong.

    Farage made the point that it is Paris that is the main beneficiary of the French high speed lines and it will be London here. I don’t know what evidence he is using. Rees-Mogg says most travel is by car. I think it is local commuter travel that is important.

  • Stillreading

    Great blog. Says what I and all my family have been saying since the HS2 project was first mooted. The idiocy of attempting to construct and then actually to run a high speed network in a country as small as England was evident from the start. Not strictly relevant, but how many readers are old enough to recall, as I do, an earlier, ludicrous attempt (late 70s/early 80s?)at attaining higher speeds, when some sort of “leaning” train was put on the existing network and more or less rolled sideways off the rails? Does anyone truly believe that even when the first bit of HS2 is finally completed – whenever that may be – ordinary Joe and Joan Bloggs will be able to afford to travel on it? Of course not! It will be an exorbitantly overpriced white elephant, run for the benefit of the “elite” of the nation and their millionaire “guests” only. In other words, politicians and visiting potential “foreign investors” being entertained at the taxpayer’s expense, should they deem it advisable to leave the knife-crime Capital of England for the almost equally lawless Brum! HS2, the entire vanity project, should never have got off the drawing board in the first place. It constitutes an appalling squandering of OUR money. The human cost has been and continues to be appalling too. Home owners and farmers have had their property compulsorily purchased for far less than it would have fetched in a competitive open market. Others have had to live for twelve years with the knowledge that in due course the line will run past their back gardens, destroying the tranquillity of their homes. Farms have been bisected by the line. Some of the most beautiful English countryside has been laid waste, ancient woodlands ripped up. Time to call off the whole thing. Time for the Gvt. to cut its (OUR) losses and cease throwing good money after bad. Excavated land should be restored as far as possible to the original and re-planted. I drove recently, the first time for 12 years, a Midlands route I drove regularly more than a decade ago and the despoliation is heart-breaking. Great heaps of soil and a huge concrete bridge where previously were cultivated fields and pastureland, and within earshot of what is intended to be the completed line a small village which will be subjected to the regular roar of the trains thundering past. HS2 has been a vanity project for successive Prime Ministers. It’s time to stop it entirely, while at the same time diverting some of the £billions the cancellation would save to delivering a decent rail service on the trans-Pennine route as well as improving signalling and lengthening platforms on the existing network.

  • Paul Chambers

    These privately educated trustafarians who want revolution rather than evolution deserve this mess. The government and public sector is infested with them and they have no awareness of value or the cost of money. If everything has been handed to you on a plate and you have never had a real job drifting from academia to politics with plenty of gap years to find your spirituality in India taking hard drugs throughout.

    I imagine Rishi knows his way around a pharma balance sheet but lets face it he had no choice but to cancel this it wasn’t because he is some wise owl. With the bank of england busy selling gilts via qt and the absence of foreign buyers who do not trust the west not to confiscate their assets as they have just done to russia. The cost of borrowing is soaring and thankfully we have run out of money to waste.

    The rich kids will hopefully soon get bored without money to spoof building their heaven on earth and the rest of us and what’s left of the countryside may get a reprieve from their vandalism.

  • Carolyn

    My thoughts too, David. Anyone with half a brain cell could see the flawed thinking behind HS2, get to Birmingham 12 minutes earlier? wow! That’s really going to transform the economy.

    A simple cost benefit analysis at the beginning would have made both HS2 and Net Zero complete non-starters. Yet our political elites pushed ahead regardless. Why? What is wrong with these idiots?

  • Stillreading

    I heard early this morning on R4 that farmers and others whose homes and land was compulsorily purchased for the now cancelled Northern leg of HS2, have been told they can now buy back what was taken, BUT AT TODAY’S NOW MUCH ENHANCED VALUATIONS! Despicable pronouncement on the part of Government representatives if true. A Government which is able to find £7 million a DAY to accommodate illegal immigrants in the style which the ECR, “Care for Calais” and other do-gooding organisations appear to think appropriate, can surely find a few £million more to restore to property owners, fully and free of any charges, legal or otherwise, what was previously taken in the name of this idiotic Government vanity project. (ALL UK property owners, wherever we may live, need to bear in mind that what happened to these people could just as easily happen to any one of us when this or some future Gvt. gets a bee in its bonnet about introducing some “improvement” to infrastructure.)

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