Tomorrow the British parliament debates a bill to launch a $50 billion high-speed rail project. HS2, as it’s called, will eventually cut journey times by half between London and other major British cities like Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.
The government says HS2 will propel British rail travel into the 21st century but opponents claim that it will be noisy, polluting and very poor value for money.
The proposed line will slice through some of England’s finest countryside -- the Chiltern Hills, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty which is supposed to be protected from development. Roger and Jenny Waller live in the Chilterns and fear the arrival of high-speed rail.
“We’re going to have 36 trains every hour zipping past here at 220 miles per hour with all the dust and noise pollution,” says Roger. And Jenny continues: “For those of us who moved here for the tranquility it’s going to be devastating.”
But HS2 has many supporters. Jerry Blackett of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce argues that the new line will bring the country closer together and boost the economy.
“We know that when you put big projects in like this you get new businesses setting up,” he says. “You get jobs being created. Stuff happens when people can get to places quicker.”
Other supporters of the project warn that if the new line is not built Britain’s rail system will decline.
“We will end up with a network that’s congested and unreliable and unable to fulfill the needs of a growing economy,” says Jim Steer of the transport consultancy Steer Davies Gleave. “We’ve got to think forwards."
Forward-thinking is the main aim of the New Economics Foundation, but this London-based think-tank does not put HS2 in that category. The Foundation’s David Theiss believes that the high-speed rail project harks back to the Age of Steam.
“It’s a bit of nostalgia,” he says. “It’s a case of ‘Look at the great steps we made during the Victorian era. We can do that again now.’”
Theiss maintains that in a small country like Britain -- where you can already reach many of the most important commercial centers by rail within a couple of hours -- shortening journey times further is not a high priority. He says the U.K. should spend the $50 billion upgrading the existing rail network. And if it wants to be really futuristic, it should install super-fast fiber-optic broadband across the country. Theiss claims that would deliver a much bigger boost to the U.K. economy than high-speed rail.
And it wouldn’t tear through the tranquility of the English countryside.