High-Speed Controversy: Massive Rail Project Has Britain Divided
Politicians in the British capital are staunchly in favor of a high-speed rail project that would link London with northern England. But those who live near where the tracks would run aren’t so sure. Though the government gave the enterprise the green light this week, many are hoping to block it.
The British government has long been consistent in its support: The planned high-speed rail link between London and the north of England is as revolutionary as the invention of the steam train in the 19th century, intoned former secretary of state for transport Philip Hammond, who is now defense secretary, in October of 2010. It will create jobs and improve the competitiveness of Britain’s economy, the government has promised.
But there has been no lack of opposition to the £32 billion (€38.8 billion, $49 billion) prestige project. Indeed, it has taken two years and countless consultations before cabinet approval could finally be granted for the first, 180-kilometer stretch connecting London and Birmingham. Current Transport Secretary Justine Greening gave the green light earlier this week.
Now the planning can finally begin. The goal is to cut travel time between the two large cities by half an hour, to just 50 minutes, by 2026. The new trains are to travel at speeds of up to 360 kilometers per hour (223 mph). A second construction phase would then extend the connection to Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds, making it possible for passengers to reach northern England in just an hour and a half.
High-speed train travel, of course, has been a staple on the Continent for decades. Germany’s ICE trains and France’s TGV zip between major cities and travel hundreds of routes each day. Except for trips between the far north of Germany to Munich or Stuttgart in the south, for years the train has been the quickest way to go.
Britain, for its part, has made due with a single high-speed line — used for the Eurostar, which connects London with the rest of Europe, and for domestic service introduced in 2009 by British private rail firm Southeastern. The new project, called High Speed Rail 2 (HS2) will finally propel the UK into the age of high-speed rail.
Originally put into motion by the Labour government two years ago, the vision is ambitious. Ultimately, Britain is to be completely integrated into Europe’s high-speed rail network. In 20 years, travel times between Paris and Manchester are planned to drop to a mere three and a half hours. A connection to London’s Heathrow airport is also being planned.
Many are excited about the project, with both unions and business associations welcoming the government’s decision. “This is a fantastic day for the West Midlands,” Jerry Blackett, head of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce Group, told the daily Birmingham Mail. “However, the imperative is to press ahead with all speed because delay will simply stall the impetus that today’s announcement has given.”
His hopes, however, are not likely to be fulfilled. The project is supported by all three large parties in the House of Commons. But outside the parliament, there are plenty of opponents, and their numbers have grown consistently in recent years. Both residents who live close to the planned route and environmentalists have become vocal in their hostility to the plan, and aren’t likely to back down.
Indeed, demonstrations have become regular events in the villages along the planned HS2 route. The opposition group Countryside Alliance is concerned that the project will destroy the idyllic, rolling landscape. Hunters are worried about their centuries-old hunting grounds and local representatives, most of them Conservatives, fear the anger of their voters.