The Wrong Type of Railway

Transport developments continue to make the headlines this month. Figures for rail use so far in 2011 suggest that this will be a boom year, with the number of passenger journeys at its highest since the mid-1940s, and the highest in peacetime since the 1920s. The Independent (a London newspaper) commented in its editorial on 17th October that: “Soaring petrol prices is one of the principal factors powering the growth in train travel, and as a return to the days of cheap petrol appears inconceivable, it would be wise to bank on the need for continued rail expansion. Yet there is not much sign that the Government has taken this on board.”

Enough of that rolling on the floor laughing. Of course, petrol prices are still ridiculously low but at least there are some who realise, however imperfectly, that the only way is up, just as there are those who realise that growth really is dead, even if they have yet to see the body. There will be huge investment in the railways in the years to come. The London regime has embarked on one of the biggest rail development programmes since Victorian times – 2,700 new carriages, £900 million for electrification, and the Crossrail and Thameslink projects. Not to mention High Speed 2 ruffling Tory feathers in the Chilterns.

The question we should all be asking is whether this is money well spent. Will it help decentralise the UK and facilitate the re-formation of substantially self-sufficient regional economies? Or will it re-inforce provincial subservience to dictates from the London branch office of the global banking scam, and so disastrously delay our transition to a sustainable way of living?

Left to the market, the answer might well be the former. The highest growth this year has been in journeys taken in London and the south-east rather than in the long-distance travel that politicians like to talk up into a series of glamorous grands projets. Another growth area has been in use of small rural branch lines – precisely the kind of lines that used to be considered the network’s biggest liability. No doubt that pattern would have been even more marked if so many services outside the south-east had not been rendered inaccessible through branch line closures. “The argument deserves to continue, therefore,” opines the Indy, “over whether future investment should be targeted towards further improvements to high-speed, cross-country routes, or plugging the woeful gaps in our often neglected commuter and branch line services.”

No prizes for guessing our choice. Or that the London regime has the opposite view, knowing full well that the £30 billion cost of HS2 would drain the rail sector of the resources, financial and human, needed to do anything really useful at this time. (Besides creating a climate of confrontation and fear that could turn a lot of decent folk against rail development as such.)

North Warwickshire MP Dan Byles told his colleagues recently that HS2 is “such an important national project that, regardless of whether you as an MP are for or against it, you need to know the issues at stake. Every family in the land will end up paying for this.” The Institute of Economic Affairs has said that there is no business case for HS2. The Economist magazine wrote that: “the effect of such projects in other countries has often been to strengthen the competitive advantage of an already dominant city.” Paris has gained the most from the creation of a high-speed network with itself as the central node and London now seeks to repeat the feat. The HS2 Action Alliance has concluded that what is needed to benefit the north and midlands are “transport improvements that improve the efficiency of their labour markets, not ones that expose them to greater competition from London” (‘competition’ subsidised, of course, by all us poor provincials). Dismantling the fake regional structures of the Prescott era without replacing them with a genuine regional alternative will make that turn-around harder to achieve. According to Ed Cox, director of the think-tank IPPR North, handing powers to Scotland’s devolved government and London’s mayor while ignoring everything in between has allowed those areas to advance economically while others suffer.

We’ve been saying all of this for 30 years now: that what’s needed is a Wessex-oriented transport system to link our principal towns and cities to each other, not to London. And the same goes for every other region in our position. The great centralist lie is that Whitehall rule is fair rule, that the national interest is the sum of regional interests and not something that in fact is structurally biased in favour of the south-east corner of these islands.

Sneering at regional solutions, as the Coalition does, and insisting that cities and their hinterlands – ‘Local Enterprise Partnerships’ – are the expected basis for sub-national collaboration is economically illiterate. Like it or not, rural areas do exist and do have a contribution, increasingly important, to make to our sustainable future. As a strategic rail link, the Wessex Main Line is not just Bristol’s commuters at one end and Southampton’s at the other, with an empty bit in the middle and the main focus of attention catching connections for Paddington and Waterloo. It is the backbone of a region, which is why the London regime likes to run it down and turns a blind eye to the overcrowding. And will go on doing so until we retrieve the power to set our own priorities.

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