Don't let the defeatists and cynics talk down Britain's need for speed
The Observer: 2 August 2009
Our lack of high-speed railways is humiliating. In this key capability, Britain is a banana republic
There are 3,480 miles of railway in operation in Europe where trains can travel at 150 miles an hour or more. Another 2,160 miles are under construction. Yet another 5,280 miles are planned. More than 10,000 miles in all. Britain has just 68 miles and the planning for more began a mere six months ago. It's humiliating. In this key 21st-century capability, Britain is a banana republic.
Take a look at the map of Europe. It is obvious that within just a few years, London, Paris, Madrid, Frankfurt, Barcelona, Brussels, Amsterdam and Berlin are going to be hooked up by trains hurtling regularly between each city, London using the country's sole 68 high-speed miles to the Channel Tunnel to connect to the wider network. The experience of the Japanese Shinkansen high-speed network foretells what will happen – those cities that are part of the system will blossom industrially and commercially. Those outside it will wilt.
Which is why anyone reading this column outside London should take a close and passionate interest in transport secretary Lord Andrew Adonis's plans to create a high-speed railway between London and Glasgow, via Edinburgh, Newcastle, Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham. This is "High Speed 2", in contrast to "High Speed 1" which links the Channel Tunnel and St Pancras. It is a belated attempt to catch up, bringing the rest of the country into a key, low-carbon transport technology from which, outrageously, it has been excluded.
Some readers will think: "So what?" They will argue that it does not really matter whether it takes 90 or 45 minutes to make the journey from London to Birmingham – or five hours or three hours from Edinburgh to London. A tunnel under the Pennines to link Leeds and Manchester – the current trans-Pennine "express" takes an amazingly long 55 minutes to travel 45 short miles – is a white elephant, despite shortening the journey time to 15 minutes. The overall price tag – some £20bn – is ludicrously high for a country with budget deficits of £ 175bn a year. We cannot afford and do not need this line.
Wrong. Economic growth and development are driven by what innovation theorists call general purpose technologies. A general purpose technology is one that transforms economies and societies. The wheel was a general purpose technology. So was the Portuguese invention of the three-masted caravel in the 15th century that allowed ships to become ocean- going, leading to European long-distance trade, colonisation and the emergence of a rich European merchant class. So was the printing press. And so was the railway in the 19th century.
Railways did not just get passengers from A to B faster than horses. The railway consolidated nations and national markets. It created new cities and city suburbs. It allowed the European powers to open up their colonies. Rail transformed the military geography of the world. For the first time, people en masse began to move away from their home towns and villages, massively enlarging the gene pool. Railways, like the internet and biotechnology today, were a genuine general purpose technology.
The intriguing question is whether high-speed rail will be as transformative. My hunch is that it will. One of the advantages of London over other parts of the country is that there is a critical mass of 8 million rich consumers crowded into one urban space. It makes the economics of everything from theatre to horticulture, medicine to hi-tech manufacturing radically different. Why is it so ludicrous to think that Manchester and Leeds could be linked by a tunnel with a dozen trains an hour pumping through it on a 15-minute journey, so creating an urban space equal to London? The Italians have built a much longer tunnel between Bologna and Florence for their high-speed network.
It has been obvious for the last 20 years that cities and city regions are emerging as the new drivers of economic growth, especially if their hinterland has a high proportion of industries requiring a lot of brainpower. These fast-growing "ideopolises" tend, as research at the Work Foundation underlines, to trade with each other rather than poorer, less creative cities.
What the European high-speed network will do is to create a network of fast-growing ideopolises, breaking down borders and exponentially opening up traffic. You need to be on the line.
The last minister with the imagination and energy to get anything done in transport was Michael Heseltine, who forced through the Jubilee Line, the Docklands Light Railway and High Speed 1. Financing is comparatively easy if you have sufficient chutzpah, which Adonis certainly has, even if he's unsettlingly hazy about the detail. High-speed rail commands a 30% premium on fare prices. Top that up with a supplementary business rate and a national infrastructure bank could easily earmark the revenue to raise £20bn to pay for construction, with repayments spread over, say, 40 years.
If the private sector owned a majority of a national infrastructure bank, the lending would be categorised as private. Even if it counted as public debt, we should learn to welcome debt that generates assets of the quality of a high-speed rail network. Britain had national debt in excess of GDP between 1750 and 1850. Greatness requires debt on this scale. Only countries with no ambition allow debt to trump their aims.
What is needed is political leadership, some dynamism and willingness to take risks. Even close friends of Adonis's predecessor, Geoff Hoon, would hardly argue he was dynamic – a do-as-little-as-possible politician in the mould of Boris Johnson. Few ministers do take the initiative. They are overwhelmed by the round of endless meetings, officials who are more keenly aware of the risks than the rewards of any action and who want to keep their secretary of state out of trouble.
Thus chancellor Alistair Darling, for all his virtues as a good man in a crisis, has not used the once-in-a-century opportunity to reshape the British financial system. Too risky. Requires too much daring. There is no plan for a British national infrastructure bank – despite the progress being made on the idea in the US – and already Treasury officials are looking to kill High Speed 2 as part of the crazed assault on the budget deficit.
Adonis hopes to outflank them by taking High Speed 2 out of politics. The idea is to get all three parties to commit to the line in their manifestos and so make cancellation impossible. If so, Britain might have built 400 miles of high-speed rail by 2025. France is building 400 miles alone this year. If it were not for Andrew Adonis, Britain would not even be planning that. A few more like him (and Heseltine) and we may be able to move around our country faster.