Rail Ramble: HS2 – is it really going to happen and who foots the bill?

Mike Humble:


One thing that really gets me right in the guts is the constant meddling and involvement of politics regarding public transport. 1986 saw the catastrophic event of the Transport De-Regulation act where bus and coach services went into a terminal decline along with its associated manufacturing base, ten years later saw British Rail and Inter-City sliced into pieces and thrown into the bidding area. I miss the infamous British Rail Board, for all its faults and often laughed at practices, it actually worked quite well. Prior to the big sell off, it actually made a good case for itself in a business sense too. The unmistakeable double arrow logo and Swallow livery of the Inter City sector eventually made a profit and slowly but surely, the image of curled up sandwiches or antiquated unreliable rolling stock packed out like cattle trucks started to change.

In the Nationalised world you as a business are answerable to central Government and your passengers, things are much different in the private state. You are answerable to your shareholders and the things that really matter namely your customers, are seen as the cash cows. Say what you will about rail travel, we as a very small island fair very well so far as network coverage is concerned, and that’s also taking into account the still much talked about Beeching report. Back in the 60s the British Rail Board and the Labour Government employed a certain DR Richard Beeching who was head hunted from ICI to study the viability and performance of British Rail. Massive network cutback ensued and his name was dirt in the public’s mind before and consequently many years after his death. What is less documented is the fact that other parts of his suggestions were not put into place.

A change of political party scuppered his plans for a network of dedicated high speed lines interconnecting the nations industrial and business centres. So.. this current argument of the HS2 line is actually a re-opening of an initial idea first mooted almost 50 years ago. Is HS2 actually needed in this super internet highway where most business transactions are done down a fibre optic cable? The once mighty and dare I say respected Inter-City brand was sliced up a multitude of private companies none of which I personally think would be capable of running a super high speed dedicated line in a similar vain of the French TGV system. You can get to Newcastle from London in a shade under 3 hours whereby London to Birmingham via the Pendolino can be achieved in the time taken to consume a breakfast and finish the Times cross word.

The last foray into super high speed travel was the APT. So close to perfection only for the Government to get cold feet and dither resulting in BR pulling the plug.
The last foray into super high speed travel was the APT. So close to perfection only for the Government to get cold feet and dither resulting in BR pulling the plug.

What I do think is that it will never happen. A great deal of money will be made by consultation companies and a few computer generated videos will be shown to woo the public and politicians and that will be it. Once the nitty gritty of confirming the commitment of spending millions of tax payers money to pay for a network that will be privately run serving a select passenger who will pay a heavy premium for the advantage of sliding behind his desk half an hour earlier – Westminster will shy away. Yet in fact this is already happening, many politicians are right now claiming this idea to be prohibitively unnecessary and expensive – even after a small fortune (over 1 billion so far) has been spent on viability projects and super slick looking virtual videos of concorde looking trains slicing through the home counties fields and cuttings. Maybe in the BR days or if things still remained in the public sector, a plan like this may have taken place – not now.

Our last effort in super high speed travel came in the form of the Advanced Passenger Train (APT) which was a marvelous showcase of British design and ingenuity. Sadly as the case proved it was also a shining example of poorly handled public affairs and Parliamentary cold feet. The BR board were forced into showcasing too early and after not enough capital had been given to make it work. A senior BR engineer once told me they were literally a few months away from perfection when they pulled the plug. It was a case of the Government being no where near advanced for the train rather than a failure of the train itself – a real shame as we now have barely any rail manufacture left let alone a clear and concise idea of exactly who would be ideal to operate a dedicated high speed line.

Mark these words: if HS2 actually happens… I`ll eat my hat and chew the lining!


  1. Beeching lived in East Grinstead. One of the lines closed as a result of his report became a major road round the town – and was amusingly named Beeching Way in his honour. Love the irony.

  2. HS2 must happen- there simply isn’t enough spare capacity on the West Coast Mainline for the increasing amount of traffic. However, it seems to me to be a mistake, both politically and as a business case, not to make a stop in Oxfordshire- which would go some way in placating opposition to it.

    There seems to be a belief amongst many that there is a choice between spending on ‘classic rail’ improvements to the existing network, and HS2, which just isn’t the case. All over the network there are improvements and bottleneck relief schemes either in progress or in planning, from track redoubling projects like Swindon/ Kemble, freight relief routes such as the Nuneaton Chord (hope they thief-proof the cabling for that as the Nuneaton area suffers more than its fair share of cable theft), and the eventual reopening of the Varsity line. There is tremendous progress in rail infrastructure that barely gets mentioned in the wider media, sadly.

    The future looks bright as long as the politicians don’t cock it all up for their own short-term ends.

  3. HS2 – The arguments against are stacking up almost daily (not to mention the estimated costs) and some politicians seem to be trying to put some distance between themselves and scheme. Extra capacity is needed but there has got to be a better use of resources than this.

    By the time this is built technology will have moved on and business people will be travelling even less (something that wasn’t considered when this scheme was planned using out of date data!). Most ordinary passengers will be priced off this service by the premium fares that will be charged and will be left using the already overpriced services provided by Virgin etc. So apart from a few overpaid business people and MP’s claiming on their expenses, who will bother to use HS2? The greatest white elephant of the 21st century so far, even outstripping the pointless £11 billion and counting wasted on the NHS IT system upgrade that never happened!

  4. Re-open the full length of the old Great Central line and spend the rest on local rail and road improvements/realignments improving safety just as much as speed.

  5. Re-opening the Great Central could be done in theory, there was a Government backed scheme in 2006 to look at the viability of opening the route again, but there are a number of massive obstacles where the track has been built on/filled in or sold off in places. It all went quite when HS2 was first made public….

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