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THE brilliant, if eccentric, railway engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel observed that: “If we must have heroes and wars whereinto make them, there is no war so brilliant as a war with the wrong.”
He might have had in mind the wrong-headed management of the HS2 railway project that was originally conceived of as upgrading the connection between England’s second city Birmingham and the capital — and further justified as the foundation for a more diversified improvement of the railway links across the North.
There are compelling and contradictory arguments based on priorities, cost and transport strategy that divide people, politicians and railway enthusiasts about both the desirability and the viability of the first stage in this project. It is right that those concerned equally with the environmental cost, the enormous capital investment and the social and economic value of HS2 debate these questions.
Government could, of course, allude to these controversies in making up its mind. But narrower and predictably self-interested considerations lie behind the latest decision to scale back those bits of the plans that justified — in the view of many people in the North and the Midlands — the project as a whole.
Firstly, apparent is the malign influence of that multimillionaire champion of pensioner poverty and austerity presently occupying the Treasury. Rishi Sunak wants to keep infrastructure spending down to 3 per cent of GDP.
(This 3 per cent figure obsesses these people. It was the neoliberal European Union, in its infamous Lisbon Treaty, that set public-sector borrowing at 3 per cent and set Gordon Brown off on his bid to boost banks profits with his private finance initiative.)
The second consideration is the effect it might have on those critical suburban and countryfied constituencies through which HS2 will travel. The project entails enormous investment in bridges, cuttings and tunnels. It will consume untold quantities of steel and cable, take years of disruption and noise and deliver to these substantially Tory-voting constituents very little in the way of railway stations for their convenience.
Presumably, the psephological number crunchers at Conservative Central office have concluded that such electoral advantage that might be gained by winning additional Tory voters in the North would be offset by losses — to Lib Dems or Greens — in these traditionally Tory areas.
Britain is a smallish place and up until the 1960s it had a very extensive network of railway stations serving many of the smaller towns as well as the bigger cities that make up the now substantially deindustrialised North and Midlands.
In a spectacular own goal of capitalist policy, the first 1963 Beeching report identified 2,363 stations and 5,000 miles of railway line for closure, over half of stations, 30 per cent of route miles, and 67,700 jobs in the nationally owned British Rail.
The next stage in the capitalist vandalisation of Britain’s transport system was the privatisation of rail brought in by the John Major Tory government and continued ever since by every administration.
The railway unions are right in characterising this latest reversal as “industrial vandalism” and a betrayal of the North. High speed rail works best alongside a dense network of railways delivering goods and passengers.
Britain’s ageing infrastructure needs massive investment. But this needs to be on the basis of an integrated transport policy that prioritises public transport and a shift from fossil fuels to cleaner energy, with many fewer road journeys.
It is becoming ever clearer that the kind of planning and investment that a 21st-century economy demands cannot be delivered by Tory government or big business. It demands socialist solutions.
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