Last summer during the unlamented general election, I spent a great deal of time on trains to, from, and around the city of York. The British funk on the subject of their passenger trains is so deep that I hesitate to say this, but British trains are really not bad.
They are certainly much worse than Japanese trains. But they are a great deal better than American ones, some of which even Ranulph Fiennes would find uncomfortable.
I spent my postgraduate years in New Haven, Connecticut, up the coast from New York City. The home of Yale University, New Haven was a classic centre of New England industry — the birthplace of the erector set, among much else. But by the 1960s, much of that industry was dying, if not dead.
The results will be familiar to residents of Birmingham where this week’s Conservative conference is being held.
As a post-industrial pick-me-up, New Haven got a massive dose of taxpayer-financed concrete brutalism, administered with high explosives. Roads were carved through the city with such abandon that even today parts of it look like it was attacked by B-52s.
The theory was that people would use these roads to come to New Haven to admire the burning rubble. Instead – seeing as how roads go both ways – people used them to flee to the suburbs. The road-building scheme was a classic government blunder.
New Haven did no better with its trains. It’s barely within commuting distance of New York City – it’s the last station on the commuter line, and Yale has always been a Wall Street feeder school.
But neither commuter trains nor the fast one – the Acela – that runs between New Haven and New York can make New Haven as attractive as New York. The trains, basically, are a way to get to New York.
And I fear that will be the fate of Britain’s newest tracked adventure, HS2, the fast line from Birmingham to Euston – and, latterly, Leeds. It is a curious fact that Britain, a nation that is unhappy about its existing trains, has decided that it should spend a great deal of money building another one.
HS2 is billed as improving connections between the Midlands and London. But, like New Haven’s roads and trains, HS2 will run both ways. Viewed from above, the British transport system already looks like rivulets of water draining down the plug hole of London.
London attracts 19 million overnight visitors annually to Birmingham’s one million, and HS2 is much more likely to increase London’s total than it is Birmingham’s.
Good transportation systems are an asset, but they only take people where they want to go – and in Britain, people want to go to London.
And that focus on people, perversely, is another problem. When it was first mooted in 2009, the case for HS2 rested on the argument that the railways would need more space for both freight and passengers.
Since then, passenger numbers have indeed grown but, with as a result of the final collapse of coal mining and coal transport, freight has actually shrunk.
And this is where US trains do things better. In Britain, only nine per cent of freight travels by rail. In the US, it’s over 15 per cent. The US rail system emphasizes goods, while the British one emphasises passengers.
I admit that prioritising people feels better. But economically, getting more heavy goods on trains – and off roads and lorries – makes more sense. That doesn’t mean Britain must build more roads. But it does mean that Britain should try to move as much freight by rail and water as possible.
An inevitable result is that HS2 has been sold with dodgy calculations of how much money it will save. Governments always says that and perhaps at the start they even believe it. But as Anthony King and Ivor Crewe found in their classic study of The Blunders of Our Governments, governments are often guilty of believing that belief, not deliberation, is what makes successes.
Another stepping stone to failure is a project that is supposed to achieve everything and yet nothing. HS2 is now about apprenticeships. And the Northern Powerhouse. And that ill-defined glory, British leadership. Much more than anything, HS2 is about the government having started, so it has to finish.
This is all too typical of Britain, the most top-down country in the Western world. Britain is breaking free from the EU – the ultimate top-down folly – but it remains intensely centralised.
The TaxPayers’ Alliance’s Great British Transport Competition, its puckish public competition for what to do instead of HS2, offers a welcome bit of bottom-up spirit. But Brexit Britain needs more than this. It needs local control of taxing and spending.
This piece originally appeared in The Yorkshire Post