WHEN the TGV Med line came fully into service in 2001 it became possible to get from Paris to Marseilles in three hours.
That’s a trip of 750 kilometres, give or take, or the equivalent of Glasgow to London with a bit to spare. One of the last pieces in France’s jigsaw of Lignes a Grand Vitesse – high-speed lines – had fallen into place. And that was a decade ago.
It should go without saying that SNCF, the French national rail operator, remains state-owned. It might be worth adding that the “national corporation” made a 1.1 billion euro profit in 2007, lost ground during the recession, and returned to profitability last year. Part of the money it makes from the TGV goes to non-TGV services, and also to subsidise fares for students, pensioners, children and large families.
The European Commission doesn’t care for any of that. It would like to end the SNCF monopoly for the sake of the sort of rail competition that has been such a boon to Britain. We enjoy, if that’s the word, the most expensive fares in Europe, and some of the least-loved services. We don’t have a high-speed rail system worth the name. And the notion of social responsibility in transport is hazy, at best.
Britain’s first crack at a high-speed line – the Channel Tunnel rail link – was a public-private partnership that ended in bankruptcy with the Government bailing out creditors and the tax-payer shouldering the losses. Railtrack having already gone bust, the recession then nudged over-optimistic private operators out of business, particularly on the East Coast line. Once again, the Government had to step in while throwing subsidies at every part of the rail system.
The country that pioneered mass train travel doesn’t have much to shout about, in other words. Nor, when compared with France, Germany, Spain or other Europeans, are we in the high-speed game. French regions, alive to the economic benefits, have clamoured for TGV lines. Aside from objecting to the carving up of Provence, as you would, environmentalists have meanwhile noted a drop in air traffic in France with the spread of fast trains.
It can work. The question is, for whose benefit? The French, being French, assumed from the start that Paris would be at the centre of the TGV system. The first line ran from the capital to Lyons and it took three decades for the network to become truly national. But as Britain begins to plan for HS2 – the second attempt at a high-speed link – few outside London have paused to wonder if metropolitan thinking suits this country or its economy.
Familiar assumptions are being made. Some of those have just been given voice by the Commons transport committee. It supports HS2 – hard luck on the lovely Chilterns – and doesn’t blink at an estimated bill to the taxpayer, a kind of opening bid, of £32 billion spread over 17 years. But its idea of need and the natural order prevents it from even appearing to hesitate over the design of the project. The first piece of line will – of course – run from London to Birmingham.
As the committee states: “Despite pleas from some in Scotland and the north of England to build southwards from the north, it seems clear that construction should start with the London–West Midlands phase, as this is where capacity needs are greatest.”
Any number of people object to any sort of high-speed line on grounds of cost or the environment. Some argue that the West Coast line, already approaching capacity, should be expanded. In Wales, it has been noticed that an entire country is to be cut out of the brave new network. As to whether a project advertised as a benefit to the entire United Kingdom will attract Barnett “consequentials” – despite being confined to England for decades to come – no-one, ominously, is quite sure.
But why not start in “the north”, where an infamous divide has long been identified? Why not, if the rebalancing of the British economy is a sincere aim, start the line, as it were, at both ends? Instead, HS2 will inch towards Birmingham, a city hardly bereft of connections to London, then onwards one day, bringing “potential economic and strategic benefits”, to Manchester/Leeds.
The committee can understand why Scotland (and the north of England) might take an interest in that. Its response, voiced by Louise Ellman MP, is engagingly blunt: “There is no reason, in principle... why the Scottish Government should not start preparatory work on a Scottish high-speed line, if it so wishes”.
A line to where, exactly? The Manchester/Leeds extension to the high-speed line is not expected to be completed, all being well, until 2033. There are no firm plans to take the line from there to the Border. While ignoring Wales entirely, the committee embraces a narrow notion of where any benefits should fall.
Transport is a devolved matter, of course: the Edinburgh Parliament is at liberty to do as Ms Ellman advises, Barnett consequentials – if they materialise – notwithstanding. But Scottish taxpayers, like Welsh taxpayers, like taxpayers in the north of England, will meantime be making a contribution to that £32 billion with no obvious hope of getting anything in return.
In Scotland’s case, it falls to Unionists to decide whether that is entirely wise. In terms of the United Kingdom, however, London’s barely-concealed enthusiasm for what would be, in effect, a hugely expensive local rail service is hard to understand.
The British economy is unbalanced and has been for years. Its problems are, yet again, in “the north”, exacerbated increasingly by the Coalition’s austerity programme and its disdain for regional policy. The committee, like the Government, is looking at high-speed rail from the wrong end of the telescope.
It will be Britain’s biggest infrastructure project since the Channel Tunnel. Does anyone recall what happened to Scotland’s promised links to that gateway? Policy is lop-sided, physically and politically biased, and the reasons are transparent. If we were blessed with marvellous transport links, some of the arguments could be swallowed. Instead, we’re travelling third class.
They order these things better in France.
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