While welcoming the two-year flurry of announcements from Transport Minister Grant Shapps for rail rebuild proposals, local Liberal Democrat Councillor for the Tring West & Rural Ward on Dacorum Borough Council, Nick Hollinghurst has sounded a note of caution.
"When looking right across the UK - which is really the only way to view proposals affecting a national rail network - there are lessons to be learned. HS2, or "Cameron's Concorde" as some call it was an ambitious, but clearly needed, major capacity enhancement for our national rail network. But HS2 was spoiled completely by a gold-plated over-specification that now looks like coming in well over three times the original budget. Why? Simply because of a political red line that the London - Birmingham journey time had to be less than two hours."
This meant a heroic maximum speed of 400 km/hr requiring almost arrow-straight alignments for the track that could not avoid slicing through some of the most beautiful landscapes in England. Then, in an attempt to pacify the outrage that this produced without compromising the political timetable, very large stretches are to be expensively built in either tunnels or cuttings. This means in turn that to maintain the required speed and cut down the air drag, the tunnels have to be built over-sized and, even then, the energy needed to power the trains means that they will produce as much carbon dioxide as a plane. Not only is the expense enormous, but it's hardly green!"
Then in Scotland we have had another example of incorrect specifying. Here, the re-opening 5 years ago of the Borders Railway from Edinburgh to Tweedbank has been very popular with both tourists and commuters. However, the failure to improve the junction with the East Coast Main Line at Portobello just outside Edinburgh and the shortness of the passing loops on what was rebuilt as a single line, has meant that the operation is fragile, with frequent cancelled trains, and the punctuality unreliable. Then with half a dozen bridges over or under roads built for a single track, future development and future freight use is compromised. What started off as a huge success is now tarnished by frustrated commuters returning to their cars and tourists starting to use buses instead."
Simon Walton, Spokesman for Campaign for Borders Rail sometime ago pointed out that with the increase in long-distance freight movements - now making a useful contribution to Climate Change Mitigation - "what happens in Elgin can have repercussions in Exeter".
Cllr Hollinghurst continued,
"Rail projects often seem extremely expensive - and indeed HS2 is - but we blithely agree to new roads and road improvements which are often far more costly. For example, the recently completed upgrade of 21 miles of the A14 between Cambridge and Huntingdon cost £1,500 million, which is £71 million a mile and adds to our carbon dioxide emissions. The Borders Railway so far has provided a 30 miles of a well-used line which has brought in prosperity and development over a wide area of the eastern Scottish Borders at a cost of about £400 million. This works out at only £13½ miilion a mile and reduces carbon dioxide emissions."
He concluded, "And if we could just plan our transport infrastructure in a holistic way and with an eye to building in a greener future, we could get even better value for money from rail - and fewer lorries on our roads into the bargain!"