HS2: ‘Are we looking at a monumentally expensive white elephant on wheels?’

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Regular readers of this column will know I have never been a fan of the HS2 project for a number of reasons.

I think it’s unrealistically expensive, doesn’t serve enough communities and will do irreparable damage as it ploughs up huge swathes of the countryside.

And you can also add the ‘pandemic effect’ with more and more people happy to conduct business over Zoom or Teams without the need to jump on a train and travel half way round the country.

I’ve always felt that if the Government had billions of pounds to splash out on transport, there were other projects that would better improve the lives of rail travellers.

Which brings me to the publication last week of the Government’s long-awaited Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands.

The easy thing to do would be to launch into an attack on the Government for breaking its promises after cancelling most of the eastern leg of HS2 to Leeds and cancelling the proposed new high-speed line between Leeds and Manchester.

Depending on your point of view, the ‘good news’ is that the HS2 line from Birmingham to Manchester via Crewe is still going ahead.

I’ve seen countless reports that having Crewe as an HS2 hub will bring economic benefits to mid and south Cheshire, so let’s hope they’re right otherwise we really are looking at a monumentally expensive white elephant on wheels.

But I really think HS2 is suffering from a branding and marketing issue. Right from the word go it was sold to the public as a means of getting from A to B much quicker.

It would, in effect, make Birmingham a commutable suburb of London and make it eminently possible for a businessman to get down to the capital, have a day of meetings and still get back to Manchester in time for tea.

The more I look at it, though, they really should have sold it to us as on the basis of increasing capacity.

The West Coast Main Line is basically full. It can’t handle more services, either inter-city or local. And that’s a problem.

The real argument for HS2 should have told us it would allow fast trains to be taken off the West Coast Main Line which would have paved the way for more frequent local services.

I suspect many of the naysayers (myself included me in that list) would have been more inclined to support it.

The fact remains, though, that while there almost certainly is a need for a new north-south rail line, I remain unconvinced it needed to be high-speed. I would have settled for ‘fast’.

But given all the promises the Government has broken over the Integrated Rail Plan – if I was a civic leader in Leeds, York or Newcastle I would be absolutely livid – we can only hope this revised plan actually works.

On a different topic, at the time of writing, a large swathe of Europe is in the middle of a fourth Covid wave. People are rioting in the streets of Rotterdam because they don’t want another lockdown while the Far Right is on the March in Austria, protesting against Covid restrictions. Germany is heading towards a coronavirus crisis and has cancelled its Christmas markets.

What all the countries have in common is they are worried their health services are going to collapse under the strain.

Meanwhile in England, we do nothing – no mandatory mask wearing, no social distancing, no restrictions in shops, bars or public transport.

And yet our health service is at breaking point. This is a true story which happened last week.

A friend in his late 60s developed severe chest pain and was struggling to breathe. His wife phoned for an ambulance and was told there wasn’t one was available. It was as simple as that, a pensioner in pain and struggling to breathe was told the best thing he could do was to make his own way to hospital.

Fortunately, his wife was somehow able to get him into their car and take him to A&E. What happened then, you may ask. Well, nothing happened, at least not for four hours or so while he waited to be seen by a triage nurse. He was lucky. He was admitted and a bed was found for him after tests showed he had post-Covid pneumonia and a pulmonary embolism in one of his lungs.

My friend was pumped full of antibiotics, kept in overnight and was discharged the following day to recover from home. He really should have been kept in for three or four days for but demand for beds wouldn’t allow for that.

Is my friend angry? Certainly not with the hospital staff. He said they worked tremendously hard but looked exhausted. They were run off their feet and yet were still asked to do overtime.

But that’s what 11 years of Conservative government under-funding gets you.As Neil Kinnock famously said (of Margaret Thatcher but it applies equally well today): “I warn you that you will have pain – when healing and relief depend upon payment. I warn you not to be ordinary; I warn you not to be young; I warn you not to fall ill; I warn you not to get old.”