One of the charges levelled at those opposing HS2 is that they exhibit a ‘stuck in the past’ mentality. To support HS2 is to be blessed with vision but it has always been a vision that is specific to the project.
Since the first business case, a principal benefit has been founded on the increased productivity derived from shorter journey times – the Department for Transport argued that business travellers didn’t work on trains, their journey was unproductive. Despite being absurd, the Department clung to this proposition until the volume of challenging voices, most notably the Public Accounts Committee, made it start to shift its position.
The whole notion flies in the face of reality. Advances in technology – wi-fi, smart phones, lap tops, etc., have turned trains into mobile work stations. The impact of further technological advances over the next 20 years, when HS2 is planned to be completed, is almost impossible to grasp given the accelerating pace of development that is transforming the way we work.
Non-productive travel has not been the only factor that made the DfT take a conveniently partial view about the future. A similarly crucial issue relates to the current fixed box signalling used on the classic network. If this were replaced by a far more flexible moving block system, significantly greater capacity would be achieved. If this system was rolled out across the classic network, a dramatic increase in capacity would result. In other words the prospect of an exciting future is already here. The impact of a moving block system on the much-quoted ‘capacity crisis’ mooted by the HS2 lobby would be transformative.
Of course, advances in approaches to signalling are not as eye-catching as a shiny new train. Dealing with pinch points on the main routes, putting more carriages on trains and changing the proportion between first and standard seats doesn’t grab any headlines. The future built around HS2 is one with a convenient, narrow focus. When you are spending £50bn of taxpayers’ money, it is vital to consider all the options and embrace all technological advances not just those that suit your business case.