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?