HS2 gives the game away: the plan for northern towns is managed decline | Lynsey Hanley | Opinion

Yesterday, on the day a report from the New Economics Foundation comprehensively exposed the HS2 project as a London-boosting white elephant, I found myself writing this sitting in a station Wetherspoons because my train from Liverpool to Huddersfield had been cancelled. Last Saturday, I missed a talk for which I had tickets because my train to Manchester, again from Liverpool, was cancelled. On Monday, I was an hour late dropping my daughter at her grandma’s because our train – a Northern Pacer due for the knacker’s yard – broke down at the terminus.

NEF’s report, which can be read as much as an utter indictment of a directionless, actively neglectful government as a cool-headed analysis of a single bad idea, exposes the fact that high-speed rail is unnecessary for everyone except London-based frequent travellers who dislike leaving the capital unless they can be there and back in half a day. The report demands a better service for northern commuters, the electrification of rail lines stuck in the mid-20th century, and the reopening of old branch lines to places lost to the car.

As the rail analyst Paul Salveson notes in his excellent book Railpolitik, HS2 arose out of “politicians’ love of grand projects”, around which a set of cool-sounding yet meaningless buzzwords can coalesce – “transformational”, “game-changing”, “visionary”. The sheer weight of detail in the NEF report proves that none of those buzzwords can realistically be applied to HS2, or, indeed, to the government’s non-existent wider transport strategy. By comparison, the authors use the terms “shambolic”, “disastrous” and “dire” when describing the state of the existing railway.

Alas, they leave out the description it most closely resembles: a complete shitshow. The government’s recent review of the state of rail transport left out HS2, contributing to a sense that it is not being conceived as an integrated project designed to unify the network, but as a standalone line, a sort of business-friendly trunk route, which proves that governments can always find the money to subsidise private interests even while claiming it has no choice but to starve the public.

There is no greater illustration of this than the fact that HS2 may never be built any further north than Birmingham, and won’t even use the city’s existing stations, instead requiring two brand-new stations hundreds of metres from the mainline’s stopping points at Birmingham International and New Street. It is utterly nonsensical.

Image issued by HS2 of the Birmingham and Fazeley viaduct, part of the proposed route for the HS2 high speed rail scheme

Image issued by HS2 of the Birmingham and Fazeley viaduct, part of the proposed route for the HS2 high speed rail scheme. Photograph: HS2/PA

If phase two of the high-speed network – the “y”-shaped routes serving Manchester and Leeds – ever does get built, which looks increasingly unlikely, it will miss out most of the places with the greatest need for better connections: population centres such as Doncaster, Stoke, Nottingham and my home city of Liverpool. The “Sheffield” stop wouldn’t even stop in Sheffield.

HS2 is a project from another age, for another age. It was rooted in New Labour’s – particularly the latter-day transport secretary Lord Adonis’s – love of projects that gave the appearance of regional rebalancing without doing the foundational donkey work of identifying what was actually needed.

It is also redolent of a managed-decline approach to northern towns in favour of boosting cities such as Manchester and Leeds, which no minister at the time would have been caught dead admitting to, but which was effectively New Labour’s regional strategy. The TGV, France’s long-standing high-speed line, was itself a social-democratic “grand project” that created glamorous, fast connections between big cities at the expense of smaller, underserved towns. Yellow vest-wearers have exploded in rage at rises in fuel duty, not because TGV tickets cost more.

NEF conclude that “an absence of strategy serves to reinforce hegemonic economic imbalances” – in other words, to preserve a London-centric status quo. Of course, that is the Tory ruse. This pointless juggernaut may have been set off by a Labour government – albeit one in hock to Thatcher’s lie of “no alternative” – but the original point of HS2, if it ever had one, has been allowed to drift since 2010 by Tories who see gain in chaos.

Britain, especially England, is a small, closely packed, knobbly landscape best served by an extensive network of local lines. Much of that network was saved in the late 1960s when Barbara Castle, Labour’s transport minister, redefined the railway as a social good, meaning that it should continue to serve people and places away from central routes. The fact that we are now reopening lines closed 50-odd years ago proves that the demand is there. No one demanded HS2.

Lynsey Hanley is a freelance writer and the author of Estates: an Intimate History (Granta) and Respectable: Crossing the Class Divide (Penguin)

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