Henry Ford said that if he had listened to what the public wanted he would have made faster horses. This is exactly the thinking that has gone into the Government’s decision to invest £32bn in the folly that is HS2, the fast train line from London to Manchester and Leeds via Birmingham.
I could go into the arguments against HS2, the environmental ones are compelling in many respects. I actually think the biggest negative is that it will suck enterprise and economic activity further away from the north and into the south-east of the country. HS2 is presented as allowing fast access to the Midlands and North of England. Anyone who travels regularly by train knows that the reality is that morning trains to and from London are full to bursting with people travelling from north to south, and evening trains take the same people back north. Northbound trains in the morning and southbound trains in the evening are relatively empty. HS2 will exacerbate this process, making it easier for northern people to do business in London, not in their home locations.
HS2 is old thinking because it is based on the assumption that everyone needs to travel for business and they want to do it faster. The reality of life is that the internet is allowing us to find new ways of not travelling, and we should be investing in furthering these processes for the sake of the environment and our quality of lives.
HS2 is also flawed thinking because it assumes that travelling time is unproductive time. Indeed the economic justification for it only begins to stack up because its advocates discount all time spent in a train as economically wasted. Again, this ignores a reality of modern life that many people work while on trains. People still wedded to their cars miss the point entirely that working on the move is possible. Working on trains is not ideal, but this is an area where investment, if it is available, should be going. So, a key part of the alternative to HS2 is to make our existing train network a more amenable place to work. Invest the money into more carriages, new kinds of trains, and, crucially, force collaboration between train companies to make new routes, interchanges, and ticketing systems possible (renationalisation anyone? Maybe not).
Trains can be mobile workplaces. They already are for many. I think we should have “mobile office carriages”, with proper workstations, powerpoints, watercoolers, and working wifi that doesn’t keep dropping out. And, no, train companies, I don’t want you to charge extra for these services, rather, see them as a tool for attracting people out of their cars and into your carriages. We need more co-working-type spaces in railway stations too, to make interchanging between services an easier process that is less disruptive to the passengers’ workflow.
If we treat journeys as part of our working day, where the ability to work effectively is more important than getting there faster, we will achieve the transformation of the railways into a support infrastructure for 21st Century life. HS2 is just faster horses.