HS2 is more than transport, it’s a lifestyle choice

High–speed rail makes England both smaller and bigger – smaller journeys, leading to a wider range of lifestyle choices. That is progress.

The invitation “Let me take you on a journey” is overused to the point of exhaustion. But bear with me, just this once. For this journey is both literal and metaphorical: a single journey from one place to another, a wider journey within this columnist’s life, and also a fork in the road for the country as a whole.

This past week, I travelled by train from east Kent to Manchester, where I was visiting the BBC studios in Salford. The two legs of the trip – from Ashford International to London St Pancras, then from Euston to Manchester – told a stark tale of two rail systems. I recommend the journey to anyone who doubts the value and potential of high-speed rail.

The experience of the first leg is easily measured; I arrived in London, just 34 minutes after leaving Kent, in improved spirits. I’d not wasted a moment of time or an ounce of energy worrying about the train being late. The “Javelin” is almost never delayed, running 99.7 per cent on time. The experience matches the punctuality. It is clean and neither cold nor (much the more common problem) grossly overheated. And because it provides a civilised atmosphere, most people on it behave in a civilised way. The first rule of sociology is that people generally rise to the level expected of them.

It is also fast. By the time I had finished one article in my newspaper, we were halfway to London. Travelling next to the motorway, I glanced at drivers on the M20 and felt deep sympathy for such an inferior mode of transport. It would take them three or four times as long to arrive in London. Them: hunched over a driving wheel, forced to concentrate; me: reading and daydreaming while staring out of the window.

HS1 has also changed my attitude towards the landscape of north Kent. Although I grew up only a few miles away, I never felt any affection for the marshy flatlands of the Medway. Now, watching the morning light fall on the wet grasslands, I can see a kind of beauty, though not prettiness. Far from vulgarising the land, rail has enhanced my respect for it.

Arriving at St Pancras, I felt part of a crowd yet not harassed, sharing the satisfying feeling of collective urgency without the manic anxiety that accompanies overcrowding and lateness. Treacly espresso from an independent coffee company reminded me how much King’s Cross has changed. Fifteen years ago, when I used to catch the train to Cambridge, the area was home to prostitutes and cheap nightclubs. Now it boasts Google, piccolo coffees and my favourite hotel in London. None would have come to King’s Cross without HS1.

The feeling of efficient movement across the country did not last long. The train from Euston to Manchester was filthy, late and depressing in every respect. The sweltering airconditioning lightly baked the layers of compacted Burger King wrappers on the carriage floor. I longed to be in my car. We crawled northwards with unconvincing decelerations and pauses, like a drunk staggering towards the bar for one drink too many. It is, after all, well past closing time for this ancient piece of railway. A 21st-century network has been superimposed on Victorian infrastructure. Eventually, as every engineer knows, replastering walls no longer makes any difference; you have to sort out the foundations.

That was one unscientific anecdote. Let me add another. This time a life, and not just a single day, is transformed by high-speed rail. Six months ago – with a first child about to arrive and longing for space to think and write – my wife and I moved from west London to east Kent. The Schlegel in me wanted a house we could fall in love with, something as different as possible from our London life; the Mr Wilcox in me knew we had to be within about an hour of central London. Before HS1, it was almost impossible to find that combination in the south-east.

Not now. We live in a tiny hamlet overlooking the North Downs between Canterbury and Folkestone. In mood and atmosphere, it is as remote a place as I’ve ever visited in the south-east. And yet I can travel from my writing desk to King’s Cross in under an hour. That makes England both smaller and bigger – smaller journeys, leading to a wider range of lifestyle choices. That is progress.

The row about HS2 usually descends into a disagreement about “profitability”, as though a profit-loss spreadsheet can completely capture the debate. I don’t think it can. Will the accountants’ projections register every newspaper bought, every petrol station visited, every tradesman paid, every lunch bought? The essential goods and services I used to buy in west London, I now buy in east Kent. That’s good for Kent; I don’t think Notting Hill is feeling the pinch.

Will the profit-loss spreadsheet capture the urban regeneration at both ends of the train line? When I played cricket for Kent ten years ago, Canterbury was a sleepy backwater. Now it is marrying old-world charm with a sense of young vibrancy. Whitstable, Deal and Folkestone are unrecognisable from the towns where I played junior cricket as a teenager.

Here my journey ceases to be personal and becomes national. If high-speed rail can do this to east Kent, what can it do for Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds? Everyone agrees that Britain is too focused on London. That will never change if London remains the only tolerably connected city. Above all, proper public transport has a long-term social function. It is something that everyone shares, a mode of collective experience. The car cuts the other way. Driving up and down the country in hermetically sealed, solitary comfort reinforces the victory of gated suburbia over urban regeneration.

HS2 is about money only up to a point. It also asks a simpler question: what kind of country do we want to be?

A sign erected by protesters marks the spot where a new rail bridge is proposed to be built for the new HS2 high speed train link. Photo: Getty Images.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The North

Photo: Getty Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.