THE pound stores, factory seconds shops, bookies and boarded-up windows around Stoke-on-Trent railway station do not bespeak a thriving city. A meagre tourist trade to the home of England’s historic pottery industry has done little to lift its limp, post-industrial economy. And the Midlands city is expecting another blow: two direct trains an hour currently run between London and Stoke-on-Trent, but a planned new high-speed rail line is likely to bypass it. In the future the city might have fewer—and potentially slower—services to the capital.
Earlier this year the coalition government announced details of a £32 billion ($52 billion) super-fast railway line from London to Manchester and Leeds via Birmingham (see map). Philip Hammond, the transport secretary, claims it will be a “fast track” to prosperity. If the project goes ahead—and there is still, just, time to reconsider—the final route, and Stoke’s transport fate, will not be decided until 2012 at the earliest. The first trains won’t reach Birmingham until 2026, and Leeds and Manchester until 2032-3.
There are practical reasons to favour a new north-south line. Good infrastructure lasts a long time: Britain is still enjoying the fruits of Victorian railway investment. At some point in the next 20 years the existing west-coast main line will face a capacity crunch. Upgrading lines is disruptive and expensive, so constructing a new one appears sensible. The vision of a futuristic train scything across Britain at 250mph (400kph) is appealing.
But although the plan has cross-party support, the British public is not entirely convinced. Objections have so far focused on two concerns. First, the environmental damage, particularly to the Chilterns, an area of “outstanding natural beauty” and home to many well-off voters. Second, the business case for the line: the projected doubling of long-distance rail use by 2043 seems ambitious.
Less tested is the coalition’s assertion that the line will transform the prospects of the north of England, and ameliorate the north-south divide in Britain’s economy and prosperity. Mr Hammond says high-speed rail is a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to reshape the country’s economic geography. Most of the other countries that have made big investments in high-speed lines, such as China, Italy and Spain, have likewise adduced the supposed benefits to regional development.
Yet Britain’s infrastructure demands are different from other countries’. Its regular trains are already faster than most other nations’ equivalents. Britain is sufficiently small that even without pricey futuristic technology, Manchester and Leeds are only just over two hours from London. And a greater proportion of the population is already connected to the road and rail network than elsewhere in Europe.
It is also doubtful whether the proposed link would do much to address regional variations. The effect of such projects in other countries has often been to strengthen the competitive advantage of an already dominant city. In France, more businesses have relocated their headquarters to the capital since the Paris-Lyon high-speed line opened in 1981. Since a new Spanish railroad opened in 1992, Madrid’s business population has swelled at the expense of Seville. Far from strengthening the north, then, a high-speed line might end up accentuating regional disparities. The government’s own analysis predicts that seven in ten of the new jobs the project helps to create will be in the South East.
A deeper, and mistaken, geographical belief may be at work in the minds of the Whitehall technocrats behind the venture. It is that “the north” is somehow a single, homogeneous place (a view encouraged by the signs to “The North” on motorways heading out of London). It isn’t.
In fact the putative link, designed to bridge the north-south divide, would barely even reach the north proper: Birmingham is in the Midlands; Manchester and Leeds are only around 170 miles from London; Britain stretches another 300-plus miles beyond them. And even if high-speed does boost the cities it connects, it won’t necessarily help the whole region.
The underlying assumption of high-speed rail is that proximity to London, measured in journey times, is key to regeneration. But some of those precious minutes would be saved by making fewer stops, while train frequency on the traditional west-coast main line will be cut. So for a number of places in the Midlands and the north, the new rail link will make London farther away by travel time.
It isn’t only Stoke-on-Trent that may suffer. Other places that are well-served by current timetables but which the new line would bypass, such as Crewe and Rugby, will also be hit. Trains on the old line might make more stops; passengers might be forced to take indirect routes. Coventry, for example, which currently has three fast trains to London an hour, expects to lose out on business travel, which accounts for nearly half of its visitors. The plans “send a message that Coventry is not a place to stop”, says George Duggins, deputy leader of the city’s council.
Municipal leaders in Stoke-on-Trent are already aggrieved that the new “enterprise zones” in Birmingham and Manchester, which enjoy preferential tax treatment, have drawn investment from their city. Some local businessmen are now lobbying for an additional stop on the high-speed route. For others, high-speed rail is a distraction from more urgent needs: regeneration of the local area cannot wait until its effects are felt in 20 years’ time, argues Mark Meredith, a local Labour councillor.
That such an infrastructure project would benefit over-mighty London and the South East is not necessarily a problem. In London GDP per head is 1.7 times the national average. If that grows, so does the economy as a whole. But this is not the government’s intended aim.
Sir Rod Eddington, a former boss of British Airways, argued in a 2006 review of Britain’s transport needs that mature economies rarely see huge benefits from a single project. “The risk is that transport policy can become the pursuit of icons,” Sir Rod warned. The government seems not to have listened. The £32 billion at its disposal might well yield a higher return if it were spent on less glitzy schemes, such as road improvements and intra-city transport initiatives. If the aim is to regenerate “the north”, the current plan might prove a high-speed route in the wrong direction.