Slow Politics On High Speed Rail


Last week will go down in history as a golden time for British rail enthusiasts. Continuing work set in train (ahem) by Gordon Brown’s Labour Government in 2009, Chancellor George Osborne announced details of the preferred northern route for the second phase of High Speed 2 (HS2), the government’s highly ambitious £32 billion (AU$48 billion) national rail infrastructure program.

The already announced first phase, set to begin in earnest in 2017 and conclude around 2025, proposes installing a high speed rail link between London to Birmingham and will cut the route’s fastest journey times by over 40 per cent, from one hour and 20 minutes down to under 50 minutes. The new "Y-shaped" rail line proposed for the second phase on Monday, linking Birmingham with Leeds and Manchester, will cut fastest journey times to and from London by 37 per cent and 46 per cent respectively, but is not expected to be completed before 2032.

The time savings on offer have the capacity to make a meaningful difference to people’s lives across England, and to make periodic rail commuting between some of London’s most populous cities a more practical possibility for many. Unusually, one cannot detect the modern whiff of short-termism or electioneering around: HS2 benefits from that increasingly rare, upliftingly sweet scent of nation building, and enjoys broad support from all three major parties in the UK.

To Australian eyes, it’s all just a little bit strange; if the numbers are mind boggling, the politics are truly confounding. Since the Tory dominated Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition came to power in 2010, the UK economy has been a veritable petri dish of neoliberalism; the public debt left behind by Gordon Brown’s Labour government and the GFC has given the Chancellor the excuse to actually do what his party’s mandarins dream of in only their most lurid fantasies — to slash and burn the public sector.

Redundancy programs have been unveiled across practically all government departments and local authority budgets have been cut dramatically, resulting in the closure of libraries and services for the disabled, cuts to local arts funding and other local services deemed to be "non-core". Osborne’s program is so unrelenting in its scope that even the IMF’s chief economist, Olivier Blanchard, has issued a warning that his planned austerity measures are coming too thick and fast for the UK economy to handle. In short, the UK is making the IMF (yes, those veritable fiscal velociraptors) seem like a den of gentle Keynesians from a dozy university town somewhere in CentreLeftsVille.

In this political and economic environment, peering for a moment through our Friedrich Hayek spectacles, HS2 looks ripe for the cutting by the chancellor and his savings-seeking minions. There is even a significant smattering of organic NIMBY opposition to the program across the Conservative Party’s political heartland; anti-HS2 groups are springing up all across regional England in protest at the environmental destruction and audiovisual pollution that a new high speed rail line represents to communities along the proposed route. To be sure, if you’re on the route and not near a station, all HS2 means to you is chaos, uncertainty and forced change.

So why has this Conservative-led coalition chosen to persist with a policy so politically and fiscally inimical to its own philosophy, particularly when the full benefits of the policy will only be realised decades into the future?

The contrast with the Australian political experience could hardly be greater, following a week when the Prime Minister decided to subject the nation to the longest election campaign in its recorded history. Can anybody seriously imagine a Tony Abbott-led Coalition agreeing to embark on a vast rail infrastructure project stretching decades into the future and costing billions of dollars?

In short, it would seem that there is no such thing as a bold nation-building project that can be supported by both Labor and the Liberal Party; Labor’s NBN comes close, but the Liberals have only grudgingly come to accept it, as shovels across the country break dirt. On transport, Australia remains divided and rudderless. In Sydney, Badgerys Creek has been bandied about for decades as a proposed second airport site, but neither major political party has summoned the gumption yet to drive past the inevitable NIMBYism and take the project forward.

High speed rail links from Sydney to Melbourne or Sydney to Canberra — let alone between Australia’s other major metropolitan centres — have been subject to some preliminary exploration by the Gillard Government but seem destined to remain in the realms of science fiction for decades yet.

Let’s be fair: the geography of the United Kingdom is very different to the geography of Australia. It is possible to drive along mostly flat terrain from London to Newcastle in 4.5 hours, whereas Sydney to Melbourne is around 10 hours at best, allowing for some reasonable stopping. It would be virtually impossible at face value to justify installing a highly expensive rail line between two cities which already boast one of the world’s busiest and well serviced air routes. In addition, the UK Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition did inherit a sprawling plan already set in motion from their Labour predecessors, mirroring in a way the situation Tony Abbott and his team may find themselves in with the NBN on 15 September.

Still, one longs for more "big picture" politics from Australian politicians. If one of the most virulently "anti-government" administrations in the world today can still agree that investing in nation building initiatives spanning many election cycles is a positive thing, surely we can too.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.