Isn’t infrastructure a funny thing? We all moan about how we don’t have enough and then as soon as anyone suggests building some more we decide that actually we have more than enough already. We go to other countries and either drool over or pour scorn on the infrastructure. Indeed it’s one of the major things that differentiates countries and economies. I’m not only talking about transport infrastructure. I include commercial services, a solid and trustworthy legal system, even the simple availability of good shops. They are all part of the infrastructure that helps us get the most from our time and effort.
I don’t know whether the business case for High Speed Two is solid or flimsy. Neither do you. What tends to happen when we get a new platform is that stuff gets built on it that was never anticipated. Take the constitutional reforms of the 17th Century. Nobody sat in their ivory towers and said “this will be a really good setup and will lay the foundations for a cultural and economic revolution” and wrote down what we now know to be vital parts of our national infrastructure. Just as when the first commercial railway service was inaugurated it was designed to shift freight but on its maiden journey people hopped on spontaneously and passenger rail services were born.
No, I’m not saying we should run another space race in the hope that we get Teflon. I am saying that we should not decide on whether to invest in major new national infrastructure on the basis of whether it will or will not be a commercial success in its own right. The Victorian railways never made any serious money overall, but I doubt we would be enjoying the kind of wealth we do today had they not been built.
I am not a high-flying fat-cat business type, but I have recently had to take more trips to see [potential-]clients and I’ll tell you something for free: a reliable and speedy journey is vital. I might have to pop to Strasbourg next week (I know, check me out!) and the train is competitive on cost and time with flying. One of my colleagues frequently has to travel up to Scotland. He flies because there basically isn’t a sensible alternative, but over those kinds of distances it should be quicker – and surely would make more sense – to take a better train service.
Britain is a small country. It should be much easier and quicker to get around it.