RARELY has business and public opinion been so keenly divided as it is over the proposed high speed rail link.
Businesses believe it will help stimulate growth and jobs, but the public, and even some rail experts, are yet to be convinced by the supposed benefits of the £32.7 billion project that will now extend from Birmingham to the north of England. It has all the ingredients of a dirty war.
The debate over this most ambitious of schemes was probably mirrored in Victorian times when the railways first cut through virgin countryside and changed the way people lived, as well as the landscape around them. It is true to say that Britain is trying to adapt that same Victorian network to the demands of 21st century travellers and capacity is now a major problem. Without major investment it will not be able to cope.
Some argue that upgrading the existing network would be an acceptable compromise, but stretches of current lines are not suited to the sorts of speeds required. If HS2 is to be built, it requires new routes.
It will certainly change the economic geography of Britain, though not necessarily in the way intended.
Supporters say it will help close the north-south divide, while sceptics argue that the experience of similar projects overseas is inconclusive. A Madrid-Seville line, which was supposed to benefit Seville, proved more beneficial to Madrid.
There is concern that London will simply suck in more investment and labour, and that the London commuter belt will widen to embrace cities as far north as Manchester and Sheffield.
Scotland’s absence from HS2 raises further issues over marginalisation of those parts of the UK untouched by the line including other “fringe” regions such as East Anglia and the north-east and south-west of England.
It must also be asked whether investing such a sum is worth the disruption to many people’s lives in an era when people can connect more easily through technology. By the time it is built in 2032, who knows what may have replaced the need to travel at all, let alone at a faster speed?
On the other hand, successive governments have been accused of tinkering with the rail network instead of taking the bold measures required to bring it up to the sort of standards already in place in other countries. The announcement, therefore, can be seen as a significant shift in Britain’s attitude towards major projects that is designed to produce huge numbers of jobs, big contracts for the work-starved construction industry, and long-term benefits to the economy.
However, HS2 requires a leap of faith that, by the time the trains are scheduled to start running, the world will not have moved on so much that it becomes the railway equivalent of the Caledonian Canal which was out of date by the time it opened.