Japan has ever-improving versions of the bullet train while Spain has recently introduced the Iryo, incredibly the country’s third high-speed service operating between Madrid and Barcelona, and steadily adding more destinations. Around the world, other nations are following their lead, introducing dedicated high-speed trains that are faster, more comfortable, more convenient and better at linking cities and their centres of business and industry. In the UK, however, the Birmingham to Manchester leg of the HS2 project, arguably the most important sector of our own, much delayed, high-speed service, has been unceremoniously dumped by the government in favour of, mainly, the car. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak reckons he’s “on the side of motorists” as the billions already poured into the northern leg of HS2 are written off, and the £36bn previously earmarked to complete the project supposedly are diverted to what the government is now terming “Network North.” Sunak boasted of the benefits of the new plan in his speech at the Conservative Party Conference, promising that “every single penny” saved by scrapping the rest of HS2 would go into “hundreds of new transport projects in the north and Midlands and across the country.” Many of these projects were mentioned by name and included major improvements to various roads and existing rail networks – even the restoration of the mothballed Leamside Line, which ran from Pelaw in Gateshead to Tursdale in County Durham until 1964. Within 24 hours though, the wheels on Sunak’s transport bus spectacularly fell off, with ministers backtracking as Leamside and other projects were hurriedly deleted from the new Network North website. Transport Secretary Mark Harper then had to admit that many of the promises Sunak had made were, in fact, merely “examples” of the “sorts of things that the money could be spent on”.
Meanwhile, the remaining HS2 service, intended to be a major element in the long-promised “levelling-up” between the north and south, will, according to critics, be little more than a shuttle service between London and Birmingham – when it eventually opens. Inevitably further questions will be asked, the most important, perhaps, being how much of that saved £36bn will ever really find its way into the transport system?