London and the Railways – Time to Change Direction?

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I’m a Londoner and I love my home city. But I very much fear that we are at the point of losing the plot with HS2 and CR2. These are not postcodes for the Isle of Lewis and Croydon but rail projects to link London and the North (HS2), and the north-eastern Home Counties with their counterparts in the south-west via central London (CR2).

The arguments in support of the two schemes are quite distinct. HighSpeed2, initially to Birmingham and then out and up to Leeds maybe and Manchester certainly and Sheffield possibly would move people between all points along the route at a faster rate than currently.  50% off of the journey time to Brum, 40 minutes from Brum to Manc. Inter-city double –quick.  Linked to the development are attractive economic growth figures – an increase in output in the West Midlands of up to £3.1bn by 2037 according to KPMG. This will “heal the north-south divide” and be “the engine for growth in the North and Midlands”.

CrossRail2 has blossomed following the progress and near completion of the east-west CrossRail1, and is championed by the government’s Treasury Infra-structure Team. This will link currently ill served population areas much more directly with London – particularly the Lea Valley in the north-north-east, and commuter Surrey and north-west Sussex. And all via Victoria to relieve the full-to-capacity Waterloo (which clearly has met its own, in terms of operational reliability).

But are the improvements in journey times posted by HS2 really needed? Current service levels are hardly pedestrian. The overall cost is uncertain and (on the basis of past large –spend, large–scale exercises) almost certain to increase significantly. Is the disruption – in demolished and blighted homes and spoilt countryside –  justified?

And CR2 may work for at the north-east end (for some it perhaps can’t come quickly enough),  could suppress  traffic growth at  Waterloo, and has parts of south and south-west London  spoiling for a fight (Balham and Tooting,  I’m  talking  about you), but resistance is strong in Wimbledon mostly, one suspects,  because the  published plans see the town centre turned into a building site for  10 years.

All piffle you might say. You can’t make these two omelettes without breaking eggs.  And look at the benefits of HS1 and The Elizabeth Line (as CR1 is to be known).

Yes, yes, alright. These projects have acquired the allure of success. And every large project probably always has generated resistance from those displaced, from slum clearances  to tranquil villages .  I am neither unconcerned nor dismissive of this, but my beef is that the stated aims of both projects will simply just not be realised.

I know that I am not alone in fearing that the net result will be to drag people and resources into the already bloated super-conurbation of London. I don’t think that is good for London, the south-east or the rest of the country.

If you cut journey times to Birmingham to under an hour, it becomes absorbed into the south-east labour market, and whilst CR2 is presented as being necessary  to cope with  pre-existing economic growth,  the reality  is that  it will be used as springboard for even further growth that could smother any extra capacity. It seems to me that whichever way you cut it, the fundamental problem of both the HS2 and CR2 projects is that the orientation is wrong. It’s stuck on “suck” instead of “blow”. I do not buy the argument that endless infinite growth is either possible or desirable for London and the south-east: The obese diner at Table UK, sitting opposite lean, hungry or even malnourished other regions.

The imbalance between London and the south-east and the rest of the UK is already arguably problematic.   Within London there are pressures on housing, education and services that will not be aided by increasing the intensity of commuter traffic and already-projected increases in population. And from a national perspective, if there is finance available and these schemes bring  benefits, , should not HS3 (aka High Speed North) get a priority call? How can it still take so long to get from  York to Liverpool? A hour from Leeds to Manchester looks decidedly slow.

The well being of us all is improved by turning the rhetoric of a Northern Powerhouse into a reality. There is enough wealth and resource to go round in this country of ours – if only we decided to distribute it right.

And in that very real sense, HS2 and CR2 are reflective of our politics as a whole.

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