The government last week approved the construction of a £33 billion high speed rail link between London and cities in the north of England.
The first phase of the HS2 project is intended to reach Birmingham by 2026.
It would cut the journey time for the fastest trains from 1 hour 24 minutes to 49 minutes.
Britain’s railway network is in dire need of investment. But is HS2 really the place to start?
The government argues that faster links to London will be good for businesses.
And though few working class people will be able to afford to travel on HS2, we are expected to be grateful for shaving half an hour off top executives’ journey times.
Will this really revitalise the economies of northern cities?
Trade unionists including leaders of the RMT and TSSA rail unions support HS2.
They point out that it will create much-needed jobs.
But there are also severe problems with the plans.
A report commissioned by the last government in 2007 shows that a high speed rail link to Birmingham or Manchester would create more carbon emissions than it would take away from road and air travel.
In fact, Birmingham Airport has lobbied for HS2.
HS2 could have a positive impact on the climate when extended from London to Glasgow, a major route for domestic flights.
But while high-speed trains can play a role in reducing emissions, this has not been the priority driving the plans for HS2.
There are concerns with the technology that is used for the trains. And the government is insisting on building a new, more direct route instead of upgrading existing lines.
This means incurring the emissions cost of vast quantities of concrete and steel.
The 2007 report estimates that constructing a new high-speed line from London to Manchester will create over five million tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
But it’s not the speed of the fastest trains that prevents people from using the railways more. It is already possible to get from London to Glasgow in four and a half hours—far quicker than by car. But most people can’t afford it.
Many routes outside the mainline inter-city connections are so poorly served that rail travel often means hours spent on slow services or waiting for connections.
Nationalising, upgrading and expanding the railways would mean that towns across Britain would be connected by fast, frequent and affordable trains. £33 billion could return regular services to the small towns and tram networks to the cities.
This would make everyone’s life easier, not just those at the top. It would decrease our reliance on car ownership and create vast numbers of rail and manufacturing jobs.
But instead, the government’s McNulty Review argues for even further rail privatisation.
The RMT union rightly argues that this will bring higher fares, worse safety, job losses, service cuts and more crowded trains.
As part of a planned economy, high-speed rail could be a central part of making workers’ lives easier— and reducing road use and air travel for a sustainable society.
HS2 will do neither.