Damned if you do, damned if you don’t
By Ricky Browne
Trouble continues to hit Prime Minister Boris Johnson – much of it of his own making, and some of it unavoidable.
The HS2 – High Speed Rail line seems to be a bit of both. The government has said that it will be scaling back the ambitious plans to create the modern rail system.
Going ahead with the HS2 project as stated had a lot of haters on one side, and a lot of lovers on the other. The haters were more vocal. But switching away from the project is going to push the spurned lovers to their own megaphones.
The idea behind the HS2 seems to be a great one – increasing public investment in the rail system, to bring a more modern system particularly to the North of England. As things currently stand, rail lines tend to move from south to north and back again – meaning that it can be difficult, lengthy and expensive to take a train across country,
Trips from Manchester to Leeds, for example, can be just unattractive to anyone who has a car – which might not be the case for someone wanting to go from London to Manchester.
So, increased use of a public rail system for both freight and passengers could be of an immense benefit – particularly with rising concern over climate change.
But today the government announced that its going to scale down the investment for a new HS2 system between Manchester and Leeds. And more than that, it was also going to ditch the idea of a new HS2 between Birmingham and Leeds.
“You can wait decades and dig up virgin countryside and plough through villages, but you have to wait an awful lot longer and it costs an awful lot more,” Johnson said in defence of his new position, as reported by the BBC.
“I’m afraid that we are going to be building a huge amount of new line but what we’re doing is doing it in the most efficient possible way and to bring the maximum possible commuter benefits,” he said.
Few people were impressed with his new idea — except perhaps a few of the groups who had been campaigning against it.
Up to £96 billion was to be spent on the complete HS2 system. But now much less should be spent in total, with the new idea of upgrading the existing Victorian railway network between Manchester and Leeds and on other routes.
Under the new plan, travel times will still decrease on many journeys – but not to the level previously promised under the HS2. At the time one of the complaints were that billions of pounds were going to be wasted to save 15 minutes. But 15 minutes for thousands or millions of passengers each day can add up to millions of man hours over time – so should not so easily be discounted.
One of the loudest opponents to the new idea of scaling back the HS2 investment is Labour leader Keir Starmer, who has attacked Johnson over betraying his earlier promise to build the new line.
“This was the first test of ‘levelling up’ and the government has completely failed and let down everybody in the North. You can’t believe a word the Prime Minister says,” Starmer said, as reported by the BBC.
Johnson hit back against that idea in a tweet.
“The Integrated Rail Plan is the biggest transport investment programme ever. It will mean faster journey times and better local connections. And it will be delivered faster and fairer than before. It’s levelling up in action,” Johnson tweeted.
He tried to drum up some positive PR from the change in plan, by travelling on trains up north today
“As we launch the biggest ever public investment in our railways, I’m taking the train across the North and Midlands to show how our Integrated Rail Plan will transform journeys,” Johnson tweeted — and posted a photo of him running (a rare sight) beside a speedy looking but stationary train, red box in hand.
Starmer took to Twitter for his own riposte.
“Yesterday Boris Johnson admitted he crashed the car when it came to sleaze. Today he has derailed the trains. He’s taking the country absolutely nowhere,” Starmer tweeted.
But previously there was much noise from the left, and from groups like Extinction Rebellion that the HS2 was a terrible idea that would be destroying the natural environment and was a huge waste of money that could be better spent doing something else.
Now that the Prime Minister has backtracked, the media is talking about how bad this decision is and how disappointed people are that they won’t get the promised HS2.
So the fact is that if the Prime Minister had stuck to his guns and continued the project he would have got a lot of flak.
By now ditching the project between Manchester and Leeds, he is set to get a lot of flak – and from the same people that were previously against the HS2 idea.
It was always going to be a hard slog to create this massive railway system – particularly with so much opposition.
Now it will be a hard slog for the government to pull back on the original plan.
But the reality is that there is probably more political mileage from dropping the idea now – two years before the next election — than pressing on with it. And announcing the idea now – when Johnson and the government has been under sustained fire about accusations of sleaze — can help to change the dialogue, while minimising the negative impact of the idea itself.
It is unlikely that Labour will make any concrete promises to pick up the ball where Johnson has dropped it and push forward to score a goal – because much of the criticism for the idea was coming from their own side. Watch out for Extinction Rebellion to now complain that not enough Is being done.
The end result is that government will get a lot of flak over this, but probably no more than they would get from continuing the project. Dropping the Leeds line now is a potential winner for the government, as it means that billions of pounds in investment should be saved — which can possibly now be funnelled to other vote-winning projects. Those new projects — such as new housing perhaps — could well happen in the North, in an effort to keep those traditional Labour seats which recently elected Conservative MPs.