British rail – we need rolling stock and instead we get rolling heads

The departure of Simon Kirby this week as the departing CEO of HS2 has to be a worry.
We have a new minister in charge in Theresa May’s new Cabinet, and I for one suspect that the new minister wanted to make a mark and show everyone who is in charge. So a head had to roll. 

And it rolled to the cheers of the Stop HS2 campaigners, who no-one could criticise for being gracious. All good theatre and PR, but does it help Britain and our transport problems?

The existing railway is close to failure. Overcrowding is evident everywhere, and even staunch Conservative voters want a national, not-for-profit service reinstated. Two off-peak journeys this week had me standing for 30mins and 70mins. A two-car pacer, once an hour, between south Manchester and Chester on the day of the horse races – oh, the fun we had!

But behind the overcrowding is the less obvious creaking infrastructure, though a close look outside the train window at the state of the trackside gives a sense of it.

And perhaps worst, the design of the railway remains set for the late 1940s. New towns are ignored, old stations stay open in the middle of nowhere. Ardwick in Manchester has one train a week, a so-called Parliamentary service on a Saturday morning, to avoid the legalities of full closure.

Turning back to HS2, it shows the possibility of future investment in 21 century rail. It has merit – it is less disruptive and adds more capacity than an upgrade. It connects HS1 and the Channel Tunnel to places beyond London, a promise denied in the 1990s. It does have its challenges, but truth be told, most of these revolve around what best to do with Euston. Nearly all the housing impact is within a few miles of Euston in inner London. Solve Euston and you pretty much resolve HS2.

But here we are, with another review and another rolling head.

At the risk of being old and sentimental, the 1990s settlement between Michael Heseltine and John Prescott recognised that infrastructure development requires stability far beyond the cycle of general elections and Cabinet reshuffles. Less drama, less PR, but real impact and real benefits for future generations. Hopefully it is not too late to still succeed and achieve this now.

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