Speed is not of the essence
Take a trip on any of the UK’s many motorways and start counting how many cars with only one passenger and how many lorries you see. The number will quickly mount up.
Then take a trip on the railways for any distance at a peak time, and shudder at the expense, the overcrowding and the highly variable reliability and customer service.
Now marry the two together, and you will understand why Britain needs massive investment in its rail infrastructure and why the messaging around the HS2 rail link is, if not totally flawed, missing a crucial trick. CO2 emissions from vehicles in the UK are rising almost as quickly as the cost estimates for the HS2 project. Yet you rarely see anyone making the environmental case for investing in rail.
It’s different in Germany. Admittedly the Germans don’t have a great record on environmental action, having seen their anti-nuclear energy policy blow up in their faces, leading to them having to reopen heavily polluting lignite mines. However earlier this month, Berlin announced a €86 billion expansion of rail as part of its plan to reduce CO2 emissions from transport by 42% by 2030.
With HS2 costs spiralling, and heavy opposition in the traditional Tory heartlands of Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire (as opposed to the new Tory heartlands of the Blyth and Don Valleys), the Government needs to find fresh arguments for the rail link if it is to commit to the project. Helping investment in the north and midlands is valid, maybe even more so, but speed? Why is it an advantage to cut 30 minutes off the trip to Birmingham when the train is already faster than driving?
What they need to focus on is capacity, reliability and the environment. There needs to be a new approach to rail, pointing out it is better for the planet (and a lot safer) to take a train than a car or a plane. And show that a new rail line means more people can take the train, there will be fewer delays and it will help save the planet. Moving people onto trains goes hand in hand with the growth of electric cars as part of the “green new deal”.
Then you need to get onto the issue of freight. That will take a lot more thinking and a lot more spending. However, the environmental case for reducing the number of diesel trucks on our roads in unanswerable.