Wisdom from the Warrington sage

This is a guest post by Peter Delow, and was first published on his blog here

Pete Waterman seems to have got himself on the list of people that the broadcasters call upon when they want a “talking head” on HS2. Let’s face it most broadcasting, even news broadcasting, is more about entertainment than enlightenment and PW is certainly entertaining.

So we had the dubious pleasure of seeing PW on the BBC2 TV “Newsnight” programme on 20th July (which you can view here; PW’s contribution starts at 06:46). This time he was shown commenting on the impact that broadband might have on the case for HS2:

“Broadband doesn’t employ people. All that broadband does is make the telecommunications companies richer. What do we want to do? Do we want to employ people and distribute the wealth and bring more people into the working ethic or do we want to put everybody playing games all day long?”

As someone who spent all of his working life in the telecommunications industry, I find the assertion that the industry that provides communications facilities does not give people employment as astounding. For example, the BT Group is a FTSE100 company that employs over 90,000 people. Also to dismiss the possibilities for more efficient working and stimulating business that broadband can bring as “playing games all day long” demonstrates, to my mind, a staggering level of ignorance.

In answer to the question “What about the mounting evidence that the business case for HS2 just doesn’t add up?” he replied:

“No railway numbers add up and that’s where this argument all falls down. This is the dream, build it and they will come. You cannot analyse railways; you’ve never been able to. Since they built the first railways everybody has been doing figures. If you’re going to do figures, then don’t build your railway. So you can sit down there and you can make fifty arguments for and you can make fifty arguments against. What they never do is look at history and say that every time that we built a new railway the Country has changed for the better.”

Now I would have thought that, as a self-confessed railway enthusiast, PW would know about the “railway mania” that gripped the UK during the 19th century. What happened then was that entrepreneurs followed PW’s advice and raised cash for railway projects that didn’t make any business sense. The result was that scores of schemes didn’t get past the drawing board, many that were built rapidly went bust and a good many people lost a lot of money.

We had a further opportunity to benefit from the homespun wisdom of PW on Channel 4 News on 28th July (the video is here and the fun starts at 05:29).

“You can’t not build it; it’s as simple as that. There is no economic argument ever to build a railway. There never has been. We only have to look for what it has done for this Country. One of your people on there says he goes to China and look what it’s doing for China. We have no choice; our network is at its capacity. We are running in 2011 with a railway that was built in 1854. It’s ludicrous.”

Now, with his knowledge of railways, PW surely knows that “a railway that was built in 1854” is not an accurate or a fair depiction of the inter-city service. What he is doing here is picking up on the description “Victorian” that was used to similar effect by the Government in the consultation document. We have only recently invested over £8bn on the West Coast Main Line which is now a modern railway, using rolling stock that is under ten years old, and which operates fast enough to justify the term “high speed”. And, by the way PW, the WCML all day loading factor is below 50%, which is hardly “at its capacity”.

As for China, PW has clearly not read my blog “A not so fair wind from the East” (posted 5 May). In that blog I gave details of a press report that the top speed on that country’s main high speed lines is being reduced, that expenditure on railway construction in the coming five years has been scaled back significantly and that some planned high speed routes will be replaced with ordinary lines. Since I wrote that blog there has been a further announcement that all work on new high speed rail lines in China has been suspended. China has run up a debt of US$304bn on high speed railway projects and is, we are told, only able to service the interest without paying back any of the loans.

It is also not clear what rail travel “has done for this Country”. Department for Transport figures reveal that rail journeys account for less than 10% of the total passenger kilometres travelled in Great Britain every year. Whether we like it or not, it is road travel that fires the furnace of our economy; rail travel may be more environmentally friendly, but it is a sideshow when it comes to stimulating economic growth.

The sad thing is that PW didn’t always think like this. Only just a few years ago he didn’t rate high speed railways much at all. During an interview, given in 2007, to Andy Milne (which you can read here) his comments on high speed rail were:

“I wouldn’t do it. People want to get there cheaper not quicker. I want to keep the little lines. It would be a sad railway if we were all high speed trains and no locals.”

You see, he hasn’t always talked out of his smokebox!

Now I do appreciate that in pursuing my quarry with gusto, I have strayed somewhat outside the confines of my environmental brief. For that I am sorry, but my enthusiasm got the better of me and, anyway, I feel so much better to have got it off my chest.

4 comments to “Wisdom from the Warrington sage”
  1. I think, if those who think its a good idea, were to be actually asked how often they would use it. I am sure it is perhaps once or twice a year.These things may sound good, but in actual fact only for occasional needs.I can remember when the idea of siting an airport near Rugby was thought of .Some folk said( that would be good when we want to go away).Then it was explained all the inferstructure needed which would badly affect the surrounding area,the noise etc.Then they realised, it was not, a good idea as a good exchange for ease of a once a year trip.It is a pity that more people have not seen the above film from France,They have so much more countryside than we do but it is obvious it has affected communities.

  2. I wonder why when he saw sense in 2007 about small lines has mr waterman changed his mind? I have just read an article in the metro about
    11 major stations being overcrowded.These need addressing as do old signalling.Mr Cameron seems to think if the HS2 is built it will move the extra passengers but it wont stop where they need it!

  3. Thanks for posting the link to that blog – it looks like an interesting read. Definately agree that for most people the cost of the train ticket matters a lot more then saving a few minutes on a journey. But a few people saving a few minutes seems to be the justification for HS2.

    • Only to the people where money doesn’t matter, like Mr Hammond and Mr Cameron who propbably don’t pay for their tickets. Let’s face it they probably only go north on parliamentary business… They can get away with claiming the most expensive mode of transport. Well, I wonder who pays for that then!!

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