Steve Chambers Blog

Why is Britain unable to imagine a high-speed future?

High speed rail is an uncontroversial reality in much of the world

Steve Chambers

Steve Chambers

14 July 2020

London is the terminus of a high-speed train service to Paris. The only time I have really been emphatically reminded of this is when visitors from the USA remark how wonderful it is to be able to visit the capital of another nation by train in a little over two hours. In America high-speed rail is located on a left/right culture war that means development is slow and proposals get cut back to the point of being useless. Opponents of high-speed rail in Texas have even tried to argue that a new railway plan is not a railway at all.

It is regrettable that the United Kingdom finds itself in seemingly similar but perhaps more confounding situation with respect to high-speed rail. But first of all, it is worth considering where there is consensus. The development of a national high-speed rail backbone for the UK was always going to take more than a single parliament to complete.

Rightly one parliament cannot bind another, so HS2 was conceived as a project built on cross-party political consensus. Once agreed, it has become a test of whether this country can do big infrastructure. By way of comparison, Crossrail is still not complete in 2020 and was featured in the Abercrombie Plan.

But not everyone is agreed high-speed rail is a good thing. One reason for this is the benefits of rail improvements are hard to communicate and even harder to imagine. The Thameslink Programme, for example, made busy stations more pleasant, journeys faster and increased frequencies. It can be hard to sum this up in catchy way that passengers understand.

Capacity is a popular catch-all for improvement. But people don’t really get to understand what increased capacity looks like until they use the service after the works are complete.

Hardly a new idea in railway marketing, but perhaps an effective one, is the use of headline journey times. ‘Norwich in 90 and Ipswich in 60’ was used to explain service improvements on the Great Eastern Main Line. This is a clear benefit that passengers can understand. It was perhaps a mistake, however, to focus on time benefits for new UK high-speed rail services. Focussing on time savings alone suggests that this is the main, perhaps only, benefit of the new railway.

Which brings us back to capacity, because that is in fact the main benefit, indeed reason, for developing a new north to south high-speed line. In the example of the Thameslink Programme the felt passenger benefits were innovations like being able to board a train at all at Kentish Town in the morning and at Elephant and Castle in the evening. It might seem underwhelming to make promises of this sort, but being able to board a train to get home instead of waiting for the next one is a big deal to passengers. HS2 has the potential to radically improve many commuter journeys around London, Birmingham and Manchester.

The anniversary of HS1 caused me to reflect on the benefits of that line. The Victoria-Orpington local service doubled in frequency overnight. I don’t remember that being explained as a benefit of high-speed rail, but it should have been. The challenge is communicating the benefit of HS2 comes in identifying all these kinds of local improvements. Be they in frequency, headline journey time improvements or by identifying particular journeys that will be transformed.

Realistically work on communicating the benefits of rail improvements will only get so far with the public. As much as it pains me to say it, they just don’t care that much about trains. Railways are a means to mobility for most passengers. However, something has gone very wrong somewhere if environmental groups believe a railway is not an environmental solution. It should not be difficult to find common ground in a climate emergency.

Somehow the United Kingdom has found itself in a similar situation to Texas, with the new railway conceived as not a railway at all. According to some campaigners it possesses none of the usual benefits associated with a railway at all. This is clearly nonsense but means high-speed rail finds itself with opposition, which focuses on counterintuitive arguments about the environment.

All campaigning is built around the desire to make things better, or at least not make things worse. In my work as a built environment campaigner I encounter two types of group, those that want to stop something from happening and those that want to see positive change occur. Typically, people don’t want a new noisy and polluting new road built near their homes, but do want to see improved local rail services and have mixed feelings about new supermarkets depending on the brand proposed.

So how has the new railway HS2 gathered a small group of vocal opponents? In think there are several reasons for this and none of them are new in campaigning terms. The first is the scale of the project makes it easier to attack as a whole. This is the reason road schemes are often promoted in smaller sections, to make it hard for an opposing coalition to form.

Another is that in a plan like HS2 many of the key benefits are not felt locally, which is why the regional improvements are more important to explain. Finally, there is the long timeframe for delivery, which makes it really hard for people to imagine themselves using and benefiting from the service at all.

What binds the apathy and opposition together is an inability to imagine a better future. High speed rail is an uncontroversial reality in many countries around the world. We even have some of it in England linking London with Paris, but you’d be forgiven for forgetting.

Perhaps Britain’s historic position as a leader in railway development now holds the country back. Whereas railway technology was once proudly exported around the world, now we are confronted with the dissonance of playing catch up. But putting off high speed rail for a generation won’t salve the discomfort of having fallen behind in the world.

The new high-speed railway line is being built in the here and now. It is a somewhat delayed achievement of political consensus building and technological ability. The challenge is to situate it in the proud history of railway development and the new aspirations for the kind of country the United Kingdom should become.

This piece originally appeared in Rail Professional.

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