ALEX BELL: It is insane to spend £100bn on HS2 when Britain’s rail system fails on the basics

Dundee Railway Station
Dundee Railway Station

You can travel by train from Scotland to Ho Chi Minh in south Vietnam.

I know this because I’ve done it.

It includes the trans-Mongolian line, Moscow to Beijing, which is an experience.

Coal-fired braziers in each carriage, compartments that smell and feel like being shut in your granny’s wardrobe.

The trip involved many trains, all of which left on time and arrived to schedule.

Except one.

The Edinburgh to London train left late, stopped at Prestonpans while it considered the purpose of its existence, and then chugged back to Waverley in despair.

We tolerate our trains because we have no alternative, but it’s time we admitted the truth.

Our railways are an abject failure.

We invented them, and have been destroying them ever since.

To think that trainspotters bemoan Beeching’s cuts, when ScotRail, Virgin and LNER are doing far worse damage, while subsidised by the taxpayers.

There is a calculation that trains are far more eco-friendly than flying – carbon emissions divided by passenger numbers, I think.

But for all the horror of modern airports, nothing is as ghastly as boarding the London train.

Will it set off, how long will it take, will there be food, or a seat? Maybe it will simply disappear, burrowed into the English countryside and nobody will ever find it, for lack of concern.

For this utterly untrustworthy experience, we must pay twice, if not three times the price of a plane ticket.

Danny Alexander (remember him – bit like a spurtle) said the sleeper train would be upgraded in the name of the union back in 2010.

We now have new carriages, but the train is perpetually delayed.

You can pay £200 for a bed, only to be woken at Carstairs and put on to a bus instead.

That’s like booking an ocean cruise and being handed oars.

Yet Britain is about to spend £27 billion on a new “fast” train from London to Birmingham. We can’t get a train to run reliably from London to Edinburgh, but somehow imagine it’s within our skill set to build HS2.

Worse, this vastly expensive folly in the already-congested south will shave only minutes off the journey time.

That’s the equivalent of Holyrood’s annual budget for a marginal difference in arrival time.

The total bill for all the bits of HS2 is estimated at £56bn.

And not a line of track even gets close to the border.

As public infrastructure invariably overruns, its real cost may be in excess of £100bn.

And yet the Edinburgh train will still run late, with the same carriages, to the same erratic timetable.

This is insanity.

As if to prove this diagnosis, the Tory leadership runners are enthused by this scandalous waste of money.

Jeremy Hunt has pledged his support, imagining the scheme an echo of Victorian greatness.

Boris Johnson, as with so much in life, is possibly in favour, possibly against.

He’s called for a review, but in recent days has spoken in favour of grand projects.

Bojo likes building things.

As Mayor of London he built a cable car across the Thames that nobody uses, proposed a garden bridge that was never built, yet still cost more than £30 million and wanted to build an island in the Thames estuary, much like the ones Bond villains typically used to inhabit.

He has since proposed a bridge between England and France. Finding that thrilling, he then suggested a bridge between Scotland and Ireland.

The chances of him supporting HS2 are high – it would be a dead cert if a bridge were involved.

There’s everything right in long-term infrastructure projects which are of benefit to all and improve the quality of life, but that is not HS2.

It is a piecemeal project with vague goals of making train travel in the congested south a bit faster and connecting some cities in the north of England.

It is not targeted at everyone, but some notional business person who has so far been denied a personal fortune because the 8.10 out of Paddington isn’t quick enough.

Britain needs a functioning rail system that unites all communities.

This is one way that environmentally damaging car use can be reduced.

Ideally, it would have high-speed distance trains like French or Spanish railways, and good local services.

It needs this long before HS2 or a bridge to anywhere.

The aim is not the aggrandisement of Tory politicians or anyone else, but to simply achieve a functioning railway which runs to schedule, is pleasant to travel on and does not cost a month’s salary for a last-minute return.

Britain has failed at the most basic level.

If billions are to be spent, money which will be denied for new housing, schools and hospitals, then it must be to achieve a railway that works.

It’s not much of an ambition.

A fast train that leaves the bottom of Britain and gets to Scotland without delay or discomfort.

But that, it turns out, is too much to ask for.

This article terminates here – there is a bus replacement service.

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