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Let the train take the strain?

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This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars

When the Coalition Government took over nearly two years ago its economic plans went something like this: “Let’s cut everything we possibly can, blame it all on those Labour chaps spending too much, and then ease off when things get better in a couple of years. That way we’ll be seen as the good guys.”

Except, it hasn’t worked out that way. The economy had other ideas, it seems. 2012 is not going to lay any golden eggs for anyone anytime soon.

When the recession took hold, 2012 seemed like a perfectly reasonably timescale by which to expect things to have improved. Way back in Spring 2009, the Construction Products Association was forecasting a decline of “seven per cent during the next three years, before a return to growth in 2011 at the earliest.” A bit later on in the same year, it had revised its outlook, not expecting “any significant increase in construction output until 2012”.

According to the redoubtable Stephanie Flanders on the BBC Economics blog, there are now two types of people. Those who believe that this year will be the hardest of all since the recession and the pessimists who believe we are heading for a double dip.

So the fact that the government has confirmed that it is to sink £16bn into HS2, the high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham – should be something to celebrate, don’t you think?

I mean, it’s a major, major infrastructure project that will transform journey times and travelling experiences, bringing benefits to people and businesses all the way along the route.

Hmm. I have a few issues with this. Certainly big infrastructure projects like this bring in much needed work for the construction industry – and while they generally benefit the larger firms and subcontractors there’s usually a few titbits of add-on business to be thrown the way of the odd builders merchant here and there.

But we need help now. In 2012. Not sometime over the next 15 years. And quite apart from that, £16bn is a lot of money. A huge, huge amount for a country that is facing its most difficult year since the start of the recession. There’s more than a few teachers and nurses who agonised over whether or not to strike on November 30 wondering if their pension pot is being raided to pay for it.

Can we afford to spend this much money (and more once the second and third phases to Manchester and Leeds get the go-ahead) on HS2? Can we afford not to spend it if we are to be taken seriously by the rest of the world as a place to do business? I’m not sure I know the answer.

I’m not mad on the idea of ripping through the heart of the beautiful Chilterns – all the stuff they dig out of those tunnels they are proposing to ‘buy-off’ the Tory heartlanders with has to be dealt with somehow. Although I am aware that I’m probably just repeating the complaints of the Victorian landowners when the railways were first developed in the first place.

The thing is, we have a rail network already. It’s doesn’t always work very well but surely, some of that £16bn would be better invested in upgrading and improving the existing network so that it works better for everyone, not just the few who can afford to pay the fares on the extra-fast lines.

You see I think this £16bn is going to have to be recouped somehow. And it’s likely to be recouped through higher fares on that line. You might well be able to get between London Euston and Birmingham New Street Station half-an-hour quicker than at present, but at what cost? (Money and environmental?) “Normal” people, who are unwilling or unable to afford higher fares will be left with a longer, less fancy and probably less frequent service as funds and investment are diverted to the fancy-pants high-speed line.

It’s happening in North Kent already. Almost-empty Eurostar and express trains speed through stations packed to the gunnels with commuters waiting for the train that’s stopped outside the station for 20 minutes to make way for the high-speed one that costs twice the price, even if it deigned to stop for you.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this is just the sort of spending that the construction industry needs. But £16bn? On top of everything we’ve poured into the Olympics already – £16bn – really?

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Fiona Russell-Horne
Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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