Magazine article The Spectator

The Train to Nowhere

Magazine article The Spectator

The Train to Nowhere

Article excerpt

HS2 has been quietly dropped - but who is going to tell the Prime Minister

The fact that you cannot perform a U-turn in a train is one of the limitations of that form of transport. When the line ahead is blocked, locomotives form long queues, unable to go anywhere until the problem is solved. It is scarcely any easier performing a U-turn with a high-speed rail project, especially after you have spent several million pounds compensating people who live in blighted properties along its route, and several years promoting it as central to your vision for a modern Britain. But it is a U-turn which it is becoming increasingly clear that the government is now resigned to making.

To the ou ts ide wor ld , m in is ters are admitting nothing. But the signals are there, for those with an eye to see them. The clearest sign came when a bill to instigate the project was left out of the Queen's Speech. Four weeks ago, it emerged that the Cabinet Office was clinging on to a report which demolished the commercial logic for the scheme. A senior Treasury insider sums up the mood perfectly. 'We do need improvements to Britain's transport infrastructure, but whether HS2 is the best way to resolve this problem is not clear. Momentum is certainly draining.'

That the Treasury now appears to be backing away from HS2 is remarkable, because for the past few years George Osborne has been its biggest cheerleader. In 2006, the then shadow chancellor was won over to the idea of a rail grand projet during a ride on a grand projet grand projet magnetic levitation (maglev) train on a Japanese test track, and came back wanting to do the same for Britain. But the Chancellor's enthusiasm has cooled. His former deputy, Philip Hammond, was also an HS2 advocate - but he has been replaced as Transport Secretary by Justine Greening. Unlike Hammond, she makes no attempt to argue with Tory MPs who criticise the project. She just listens sympathetically.

Word is getting out in Whitehall: HS2 has run out of supporters. No one will admit it in public, but very few ministers are defending it, either. Treasury civil servants were nervous enough about committing so much money at a time when the public finances could be about to be dealt yet another hammer blow by the euro crisis. One Tory minister says: 'The project is effectively dead. The only thing keeping it on life support is David Cameron's backing.' Officially, of course, HS2 preparations are continuing - as the Prime Minister told Parliament on Wednesday. But whether he realises it or not, the project is being embalmed, prior to burial.

The story of the rise and fall of HS2 starts with one of those Concorde moments when British politicians become fixated on a vanity project divorced from any kind of financial sense. Tony Blair had been similarly won over during a presentation at Downing Street the previous year by a German-led consortium, Ultraspeed, which had proposed a 300mph maglev line from London to Glasgow.

Magnetic levitation trains are impressive on test tracks (except when they crash into stationary vehicles, as one did in Germany in 2006, killing 23 people), but they suffer from a rather obvious operational problem:

they are completely incompatible with the railways which the world has been building for the past 180 years, meaning that no train could continue its journey on existing tracks. Blair went cool on the idea of a high-speed rail line from London to Scotland altogether. After commissioning two studies into the idea, one by its own quango, his government came to the conclusion that high-speed rail was simply too expensive.

George Osborne, however, continued to hanker for a high-speed rail project, albeit for a more conventional one with wheels. His boyish enthusiasm for fast trains then combined with what he saw as a political opportunity. With Labour having all but killed off the idea of high-speed rail, here was a chance, so he believed, for the Conservatives to reconnect with their long-lost territories in Scotland and the north. …

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