High-speed railways have spread throughout Europe over the past thirty years, starting with the opening of the first TGV line in France in 1981. Today, there are substantial networks of these lines throughout France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, with more lines under construction or planned.
In all cases, high-speed trains can operate both on dedicated high-speed track and at reduced speeds on conventional railway lines, enabling many destinations beyond the high-speed lines to be served.
The result has been not only faster journey times but also significant transfers of journeys away from other, less environmentally-friendly modes of transport (road and air).
So if there is a criticism to be made of yesterday’s government announcement about the route of the high-speed line, it is that these decisions should have been made at least thirty years ago. Blame Margaret Thatcher.
Instead of that criticism, we were treated to assorted Tory backbenchers from constituencies along the proposed route moaning about the effects on the environment. This new-found concern for the environment is dubious, since most of these Tory MPs are also climate change sceptics who hate wind farms and never complained about motorways being driven through their constituencies.
Other critics have depicted high-speed rail as “a train for the rich” or a service exclusively for business travellers. This will come as news to passengers in the rest of Europe, who can (and do) travel on high-speed trains at bargain fares. It will also be news to British passengers with cut-price tickets boarding Eurostar at London St Pancras.
But what the criticism reveals most is a very English whinge, from a world where the glass is always half empty and every technological advance is seen in terms of its downsides. The industrial revolution began in Britain and our country remains at the forefront of scientific discovery and technological advance – hell, we even invented railways! Yet the media coverage suggests that, rather than embrace visionary ideas or practical success, we prefer to wallow in stories of risks and failure. If the Daily Mail were to run a story claiming that high-speed trains cause cancer, that would find the G-spot of this pessimistic culture.
This sentiment can be traced to William Morris and the back-to-the-land movement, the late-nineteenth century backlash against industrialisation and urbanisation. It has led most English people to want to live in a house that looks like a country cottage, even though they actually live in a suburb. The irony is that this desire has done enormous environmental damage. The more that people want to go back to the land, the less land there is left to go back to. Detached houses and bungalows with gardens use up far more land space than the flats and town houses that most continental city dwellers inhabit. The resulting suburban sprawl also lengthens travel distances and increases people’s reliance on cars.
Most of the objections to high-speed rail are consequently part and parcel of a delusional need to maintain England as some sort of bucolic idyll, despite the fact that more than 80% of English people live in cities.
On the other hand, it could just be that southerners are soft. Up north, they see things differently. In Leeds, they are celebrating news of a planned high-speed rail station in the city centre, while in Nottingham and Sheffield they are complaining that the new stations won’t be closer to where they live. That’s more like it!