The UK Railways have a problem. I'm not talking of 'leaves on the line' (a VERY real issue, as any of my colleagues would readily testify!) or 'the wrong type of snow'. I'm talking about our industry's startling ability to get taken for granted. You see, if society and government were the cast of the hit UK sitcom 'The Royale Family', surely the railway industry would be a leading candidate for the role of Anthony. Never as high in the pecking order as Barbara, but nevertheless, always called upon to move things, answer the door, run down to the chip shop and make the tea with little recognition from the rest of the family.
The debate surrounding HS2 continues apace. The coalition government supports the building of a high speed line. Many leading industry figures support it also, and Mick Whelan, the General Secretary of my trade union ASLEF gave an impassioned interview to The Independent speaking in favour. Labour's enthusiasm has cooled into periodical qualified endorsements, and ominous whisperings about 'blank cheques'. In the dark corner of a Westminster garden shed, the sounds of a political football being pumped up can be heard clearly.
The problem that shadows HS2 is twofold. Firstly, we have no co-ordinated governmental policy for the expansion of our network. Specific interest groups, predatory multinationals and headline thirsty government ministers fawn shamelessly over a 'make do' HS2 project like magpies in a jewellery store at a national level, whilst economically and socially vital land which should be protected with a view to restoring much needed rail links is being opened up for sale seemingly on the whim of ill informed Councillors and officials at local level.
Secondly, we have neither the governmental ambition, or systemic ability within a hopelessly fractured industry to deliver a high speed network able to bring the kind of benefits heralded by it's supporters, in addition to creating badly needed capacity enhancements for longer, heavier, and reliable freight services.
For this project to truly answer the questions and doubts of it's critics, it needs to be bold, full of intent, and free from homogenised press releases and a terminal allergy to our regional destinations.
What we need is a high speed network that runs from the South Coast, taking in Gatwick, London, Heathrow, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle & Scotland. A more expansive proposal such as this would multiply exponentially the opportunity to relieve pressure on busy existing routes, provide a serious alternative to domestic air travel, and open up new opportunities for freight. It would also open high speed services up to a wider market, increasing potential revenue and cost effectiveness, and bringing struggling regional economies within reach of London, and each other at a time when boldness, and co-ordinated policy is what is needed to bring economic growth to those of us who are financially unfortunate not to reside within the home counties.
The current plan is neither use nor ornament, except in terms of acting as another cash cow for contractors, accountants and lawyers, given the addiction of British government of both main persuasions, as well as big business, to tendering everything, subcontracting anything, but budgeting frugally with nothing.
I predict that HS2 will happen, though it will be late, with a much shorter route. drenched in labyrinthine tenders, contracts, and financial jamborees for the money men, substantialIy over budget, and probably operating at notably speeds than currently trumpeted.
l also predict that in the absence of an integrated, robust approach centred on consensus and not liability and conflict, the existing railway, in it's guise as young Anthony Royle, will continue to try and satisfy the escalating demands of an increasingly pennywise and pound foolish family, still never quite managing it, looking on grudgingly from a tattered sofa as favoured siblings bask in adulation.
The government will never step up to the plate and truly bang the drum, either for conventional railways, or for the more expansive, cost effective HS2 network I believe would yield massive social, environmental and economic benefits. The railway industry must do this for itself, loudly, and with a unified, co- ordinated voice. Sadly, until the industry is released from its enforced worship of the false idol known as privatisation, this simply will not happen.
If and when it does, it could be like the classic, unwritten episode of 'The Royale Family' where Anthony finally renounces the chains of his family's idle tyranny, goes out into the world, makes a fortune, and returns triumphantly to buy his family's council house, rent it back to them for a profit, get the girl and buy the local pub as a gift for his dad.
Examining the current, uninspiring proposal for high speed rail, I can't help but think "HS2? My a**e!"