HS2 is the only solution, says union

29 August 2013

It’s been open season for High Speed 2 (HS2) recently, with hostility voiced by the Institute of Directors, ex-Transport Secretary Alastair Darling and the right-wing Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). Even Peter Mandelson managed to get in on the act. ‘These latter-day gloom-and-doom merchants share two characteristics,’ says ASLEF general secretary Mick Whelan. ‘They are all sadly pessimistic. And they are all wrong.’

Mick’s starting points are that

  • rail needs to be expanded to cope with demand, both present and future;
  • investment in infrastructure is the only way to get out of the economic recession; and
  • if the opportunity of HS2 is not seized, rail won’t see the money again.

‘All these people say if HS2 was stopped, the money could be spent on the existing network. That is not going to happen. The critics all share a naïve belief that there is a huge wedge of money sitting in the Treasury marked‘For the Railways’. There isn’t. If the wrong decision was made and the project was cancelled, no money would come to rail. It would disappear – at a time that we need more capacity.

‘The bottom line for ASLEF is that investment in the rail network is good. HS2 offers that. So we support it. It is HS2 or nothing – and nothing is not a viable option.’

Mick says that the very best option for passengers is that overcrowding will endure for the next ten years. ‘If passenger numbers continue to increase, the network will simply not be able to cope. Some routes are already operating at 60% over the approved capacity. We need radical solutions, because tinkering with the current system is ridiculously ineffectual.

‘Take one recent example. The rail minister Norman Baker suggested train companies use traffic light symbols to tell travelers which trains are likely to be full! Passengers aren’t going to be fobbed off with train companies publishing ‘train-by-train crowding information’. They want it stopped, not advertised!

‘HS2 is the only practical option likely to achieve that end.’

He also has little time for the‘make-it-up-as-you-go-along’ cost scare-mongering of the IEA. The ‘UK's original free-market think-tank’, as it styles itself, claimsHS2 ‘could cost more than £80bn’, over twice the current estimate. The government says the project will cost £32.7bn and has put aside a further 25% on top for contingencies.

‘The IEA has even less idea than the Treasury what the final figure will be. But whatever figure you want to estimate now, you can find an accountant to prove it for you. This is mere uninformed speculation.’

‘HS2 will provide a boost to the UK rail infrastructure and will create up to 100, 000 jobs. That makes it worth ASLEF’s support.’

The Institute of Directors surveyed some 3%of its 38,000 members and from this less-than-convincing poll decided HS2 is‘grand folly’ and suggests ‘smaller infrastructure projects’ would be better.‘Except, as I explained before, it wouldn’t be available,’ Mick insists.

Instead, he calls for a more positive outlook and acceptance of what can be achieved. ‘We think the line is stopping halfway. To reap real benefits, ASLEF is convinced it should go as far as Scotland.That would end the domestic flight industry with its unnecessary pollution, and make the north much more attractive to business and tourism.

‘But if HS2 is the only achievable option, we will continue to support it. It is the only solution.’

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