To bang one's head against a brick wall or not to bang one's head against a brick wall, that is the question, or rather that is the question when talking with supporters of High Speed 2 (HS2). Once upon a time, as Transport Secretary Philip Hammond has for once correctly stated, it was opponents of the railways who were the head-bang inducing Luddites; they claimed that the coming of the railways would kill livestock, cause crops to fail, women to faint, lead to two headed sheep, crime, disorder, etc, etc.
"Railways would be bad for canals, bad for morals, bad for highwaymen, bad for roadside inns: the smoke would kill the partridges; the travellers would go slowly to their destination, but swift to destruction…there's nothing can ever be safe at twenty miles an hour." "Stemus super antiquas vias," it was said: "Better stand still on turnpikes than move on rails." No wonder George Stephenson moderated his ideas on the capabilities of rail, both in terms of speed and as agent of social and economic change, for fear of being pronounced insane or a danger to society.
Yet how times change. Today the opponents of high speed rail, unlike their nineteenth century forebears, are the rational ones. They tell us that High Speed 2 has no business case (it doesn't), no economic case (it doesn't), that the finances don't add up (they don't); and whereas early supporters of the railways had no evidential proof of safety, today's opponents have ample proof of high speed rail's financial failures: they lose money and have negligible or even detrimental regional economic impact in France, in Japan, in Spain, in Holland… Even here in the UK, High Speed 1 – formerly the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, also known as the far nicer sounding London and Continental Railway – is a financial disaster, its 30-year lease sold for just a third of non-inflation adjusted build cost, passenger figures just half of what were projected; I often go past rows of mothballed new rolling stock lining the sidings, a mobile monument to when over optimism meets taxpayer largesse. It's all rather different to the Stockton and Darlington Railway, built with entirely private capital by a private company, which for a time paid 15% share dividends.
Now it is the proponents of high speed rail, unlike their Victorian ancestors, who make the irrational, false and extreme claims: the tin-foil hat, it seems, is firmly on the other head. And with less than 2 weeks left on the consultation, the argument is getting ever more fierce. In discussing High Speed 2 I have been told by supporters that it will get entirely private funding (it won't) including capital from the "private sector" European Investment Bank (EIB isn't private); that all existing railways were state built (they weren't); and that we'll need HS2 "when oil runs out and aviation ceases" (which begs the question how taking the 7:47 to Birmingham is a substitute for a 747 to Barbados).
Officially we are told that we'll recoup costs from leasing the line out (we won't, not this century anyway); that HS2 is backed by business (it isn't, excluding vested interests such as rolling stock manufacturers and direct beneficiaries not willing to pay the full price), and that it'll be beautiful (it won't be, unless they employ Quinlan Terry to design it, which I very much doubt they will). We are told that if we do not build High Speed 2 the economy will suffer (it won't); jobs will be lost (they won't); and that Britain will be left behind (we won't). The Taxpayers' Alliance has so thoroughly demolished the arguments put forward by the HS2 lobby that it's become rather wearisome to talk to the project's fans.
The sheer lack of genuine case for high speed rail, as envisaged, leaves me with the view that jingoistic rivalry is the main motivation. Why else do the plans exclude roll-on roll-off freight, which could be viable as I've long argued if a route were built shadowing the motorways, in favour of glamorous high-end passenger travel for the wealthy? (Please note that freed up capacity on existing routes cannot be used for this, as one lobbyist told me, due to an insufficient loading gauge). HS2 for some is a kind of patriotism on wheels, keeping up with France, Spain, Japan; yet those nations also wrestle mountains of debt, a large amount of which stems from jingoistic "grand projects" with no commercial rationale; their travellers may go swiftly to their destination but also swiftly to national insolvency.
This race to keep up with the over-indebted has induced in the government a kind of Railway Mania, but unlike the original Mania of 1835-37 it is public capital not private, and we should recall the lessons of that bubble; yes some men made great fortunes – primarily the promoters and engineers such as George Hudson, who later went bankrupt - but many investors lost great fortunes, and such a share of the nation's wealth was consumed that there was a drought of investment across the entire economy for near seven years thereafter. If it sounds familiar it should: we're already paying for excessive spending under Labour and wasteful frivolities such as the Olympics with the current spending squeeze; the government is still borrowing too much money and crowding out private investment; the last thing we need is this extra burden. To pay for HS2 other things will have to be sacrificed. As a well put but barely funded ad campaign by the HS2 Action Alliance put it: "Stop whingeing all you students, teachers, nurses. Someone's got to pay for HS2. In fact everyone's got to pay for HS2. Every household will have to stump-up £1,200."
At least after the original Railway Mania of 1835-37 and the second boom in the later 1840s we were left with a modern, innovative and privately owned infrastructure that was profitable, well used, and the envy of the world. Today however it has all rather changed. While the original opponents of the railways were the Luddites, today technology has caused a complete reversal; high speed rail is a nineteenth century solution to a twenty-first century problem from decidedly twentieth century politicians.
High speed rail may be slightly faster than existing rail but it is painfully slow compared to air travel of today, let alone air travel by the next generation of aircraft already under development. At the Paris Air Show an aircraft capable of flying from London to New York in 2 hours was unveiled; it will be launched in 2025, the year HS2 is due to be completed. On the roads self-driving cars have been operating in California for months already and Nevada has begun the process to legalise these Google created vehicles; "let the train take the strain" was a great slogan in the 80's but has rather less appeal when your car can drive you safely from your door to your destination as you surf the net on your laptop, chat on your phone, text everyone you know and make origami cranes out of the now redundant road atlas.
The Internet too will change things, almost certainly by more than any other factor and in ways hard to imagine. By the time High Speed 2 would open in 2025 – if the government is daft enough to approve it – the world will be a very different place: advances in Internet speeds, three dimensional projection and retina display mean that meeting face to face in a virtual environment will be commonplace; the journey time from Birmingham rather irrelevant when you can hold near-lifelike business meetings by video conferencing with people in Hong Kong, Moscow and Los Angeles from an office in Newcastle or living room in Luton. Now I'm not going all futurist here, we won't be living on the moon or experiencing any of the other bonkers "1960's futurist" ideas by 2025, but my point is that I very much doubt we'll be needing fast trains to Birmingham either. If video killed the radio star, the Internet killed geography; distance is becoming ever more irrelevant, costly travel ever less necessary.
So when opponents of this high speed white elephant on wheels are called Luddites, it's all rather surreal. If it's constructed, which we must all hope it's not, HS2 will look dated the day it opens; the Luddite Express, a vast vanity project, the Millennium Dome of the 2010's. I'm a railway enthusiast, I care about our rail network, but the 21st Century does not belong to the train just as the 19th did not belong to the canals. Where rail has a future it's in freight, which coincidently was its origins. The future is of augmented and virtual reality, of self-driving cars, of super-sonic air travel, of an ever smaller world where the Internet and technology make distance irrelevant; and that future is almost here. It's not quite the complete Tomorrow's World experience but it's near in so many ways; I never saw a train on Tomorrow's World, did you?