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Are High Speed Railways for the North or for London?

28 January 2013

5:50 PM

28 January 2013

5:50 PM

I used to think High Speed Rail was an excellent idea. Now I’m not so sure. I suspect the economic case for the proposals is weaker than its proponents allow. More importantly, I’m not at all sure the government’s plans for fast trains linking London and Birmingham are the right or most useful possible idea for high-speed rail. Knocking ten minutes off the London to Birmingham route seems like relatively little gain that comes at quite a price.

Eventually, of course, the plan is to extend high-speed rail to Lancashire and, perhaps, Yorkshire too. Sometime, one would guess, towards the middle of this century. You can’t accuse modern Britain of rushing large-scale infrastructure projects.

It is good that the government is paying some attention to northern England. About time too. We may detect Neil O’Brien’s influence here, I suspect.

But viewed from the far north – that is, North Britain, let alone northern England – the plans for high-speed rail seem, like so much else in this country, designed to suit London more than they are planned to assist the north. It is presumed, after all, that all roads – and all railways – lead to London.

This is not necessarily awful. It makes some sense. But I wonder if it is a plan that best serves the north. Now, sure, the north needs good links to London and the south. But making it easier to commute (weekly or even, god help you, daily) from Leeds to London is hardly the only or even the most useful thing to consider.

So I ask this question: would an east-west high speed line actually be better for northern England than a north-south line?

I don’t know the answer to that and I don’t know if the idea has ever even been considered (perhaps it’s an obvious non-starter!). Nevertheless, would high speed railways running on a Liverpool-Manchester-Leeds-Hull route be better for the north than connecting it to London more quickly? In other words, is the north its own place or is it to be considered a branch-line off the south-east?

Anyway, just a thought.

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