Railways have always been a neat microcosm of our role on the world stage. We invented them at a time when our technological advancements and the engineering prowess of our our brightest and best were subduing and/or at the forefront of a revolution that would change the world; they provided the initial infrastructure for the world economy for the ensuing two centuries, they provided the first mass transport system and transformed the movement of people within and across nations. In short, they came to represent everything that was Great about Britain: our ingenuity, our capacity for architectural and engineering genius and the brilliance of our people.
As our role on the world stage became dramatically reduced, so our railways went into decline. The 1960s were as unkind to the railways as to our decimated built environment, and Dr Richard Beeching’s ‘axe’ ensured that many hundreds of English villages had their (often vital) transport connection unceremoniously cut off. It was not just the villages; many major cities and former hubs of the industrial North were set adrift. It is a bitter irony that a suitable main line, with a station in London and which could have connected the Channel Tunnel to the North of England, was closed just 31 years before the Tunnel’s completion.
Now we lag behind the rest of the world, with a huge inequality in the quality of our service and our railway system as a whole typifies this. A report issued in 2007 by public transport campaign group Transport 2000, and detailed by The Times and The Guardian, revealed that
London is the only part of the country where the Government measures overcrowding and requires train companies to keep it below a certain level
and also that the most overcrowded service, the 7:59am Durham to Newcastle service,
operates at up to 88% overcapacity, closely followed by the 7.18am Cambridge to London Liverpool Street service and the 7.53am from Eccleston Park to Liverpool Lime Street at 85% overcapacity.
Astonishing figures indeed. The St Pancras success story aside, real hope of change, particularly for those outside London, is still some way off. A Government announcement yesterday about £8bn investment in the railways is a step in the right direction, but still flawed. What good all these extra carriages if there is insufficient platform space and peripheral infrastructure to cope with it? In addition to this, even a more casual observer will note how London-centric these proposals are.
And so, in what looks to be very much an effort to vanquish the demons of British Rail under Thatcher, David Cameron has announced, seemingly off his own back, that a new high-speed rail plan will go ahead. Even without reading his words, it is no surprise that the new plans are intended to connect England’s Northern and Midland cities with… London. Even some voices in London voiced their Londoncentric opposition to the plan when it was first announced by Gordon Brown’s Labour Government in March of this year, with Evening Standard writer Andrew Neather noting that
for instance, extending Oyster cards to the entire overground rail network this year cost £40 million — and has benefited more people than will glide to Brum and back. Even the Mayor’s ambitious new bike hire scheme is costing less than £100 million.
Londoners aside, the benefit to the majority of English – or even British – people is dubious in the extreme. The Telegraph’s Peter Oborne makes this point to begin with:
Many will find the decision to mothball British aircraft carriers because we cannot afford the planes to put on them very odd when ministers are ready to find £17 billion to cut the journey time to Birmingham by a few minutes.
A succinct insight into the frivolous nature of this supposed investment. It is not only the physical that will suffer as a consequence of this further extension of Mr Cameron’s egotistical legacy-making ego-trip, but the transcendental.
Two of England’s least built-up counties, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire, stand to be decimated by this new development. They will receive permanent damage so that businessmen (who will almost certainly be the largest group of people using this new line) will have their journey time decreased by a trifling 35 minutes.
Furthermore, we are all diminished by this potential development. Two of the finest cities of the North will be turned into convenient commuter dormitories, their individual identities further eroded by the potential for new identikit suburban estates, which will in turn leech the surrounding area of these cities. Birmingham will be ‘closer’ to London in terms of its railway journey time than Winchester, and while some regard this change as ‘progress’, the consequences of this potential change seem strikingly more negative than positive.
Oborne goes on to mention that
And do we really want to travel by train at 200mph, just to knock a few minutes off our journeys? One of the great pleasures of travelling by train across Britain is the breathtaking views: the tractor ploughing a field, the priceless medieval churches, the awesome beauty of the Pennines, the magnificence of Durham cathedral. These would pass by in an instant.
The great mistake of the motorway planners of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s was that they did not stop for a moment to consider the change that they would make to the fabric of the nation. Nor did they consider the fact that in England, it is absolutely not the case that ‘the road is the place’. In this country, we live in the grounded reality of the place being the place: our ancestors slaved for a thousand years to give us the built environments in which we live, and the good Lord was good enough to bless us with a natural environment of unique, spellbinding and transcendental beauty.
We must ask ourselves- do we wish to be pseudo-American? Which would we prefer- the limited gimmick of a high-speed rail link that would diminish our key cities and favour the affluent few, or real investment in a rail network that caters to the needs of the many? Or even an Armed Forces that is able to protect these islands?
These are the kinds of question that very much typify the debate surrounding our understanding of England at the present time. It is the move to question the true benefit of the wanton devastation of our natural and/or built environment for the benefit of business and the vanity of ‘legacy’, whether that be outlandish and ostentatious skyscrapers which are sprouting all over London or this rail link. Will we think in the short term, or will we consider the real consequences of this short-termism?
While we find ourselves in the midst of a schism between our new identity as a progressive hyper-commerce nation and the rustic reality of life in England’s now only vaguely green and pleasant land, we must consider what we stand to lose if we submit to the will of those who act only in the interests of their own fragile egotism and dance to the tune of money.
What is clear, however, is that this new link will do more harm than good, and will most certainly do nothing for the unfortunate commuters of Tyneside, nor the workers of Wales, nor even the cramped workforce of Hertfordshire. I encourage those who have remained silent to use their voice. For England.