Britain used to lead the world in visionary transport projects. Whatever happened to those halcyon days when someone invented something and within a few years it was built? I’ll tell you what happened. Our sclerotic planning system happened. It really is the roadblock to everything.

Think how long it took to build the M25, or Stansted Airport. Or Terminal Five at Heathrow. I remember organising a conference on a third runway at Heathrow in the early 1990s. Nearly 30 years later I still doubt I’ll see it built in my lifetime. More recently, Boris Johnson’s visionary idea of a new London Airport in the Thames estuary was killed off without anyone really giving it a fair wind.

This week focus has switched to HS2, the proposed high-speed railway linking London with Birmingham, then Manchester and Leeds and eventually Glasgow. We were told initially that it would cost £30billion. The cost has now almost trebled.

The business case for the railway appears to be collapsing, given the revelation that the number of trains per hour has been cut from 18 to 14, and even those would run more slowly than originally predicted. People question whether the extra capacity is really needed given the fact that in rush hour trains are currently running at only 73pc full, and off peak 43pc full.

This week, a Channel 4 Dispatches programme, presented by the economist Liam Halligan, revealed that the project has so far eaten up more than £4billion of taxpayers’ money and in future that amount will be spent every single year. Coincidentally £4billion is the amount spent every year on the maintenance of the entire UK rail network.

Costs on the HS2 project are spiralling out of control. HS2 employs no fewer than 17 PR companies to ram their propaganda down our throats and yet polls show the public has turned against this project in a massive way. This is hardly surprising given the complete failure of politicians and railway experts to convince us that it is anything other than a white elephant scheme whose only beneficiaries will be rich businessmen who will get to Birmingham 15 minutes more quickly than now.

Liam Halligan argues that the country would get much better value if it invested the money being spent on HS2 in providing new lines and new services across the country, especially in the North. You can see his point. Look at the railways in East Anglia, for example. Imagine the benefits to our regional economy if just a fraction of the £87billion earmarked for HS2 were spent upgrading the Liverpool Street to Norwich line. Or the line linking Norwich to Cambridge. Or the line linking King’s Lynn to London. What about spending some of the money restoring some of the local railways axed by Dr Beeching in the 1960s. The benefit to the local microeconomy could be breath-taking.

There are plans to link the North Norfolk Railway at Holt to Fakenham and Dereham. Campaigners continue to argue for the Haverhill to Cambridge line to be reopened, and you 
can see why. When the line was closed in 1967 the population of Haverhill was 9,000. It’s now 30,000, with a further 10,000 increase expected in the next decade. The Campaign for Better Transport has identified a myriad of new railway proposals in our region and across the nation, at a cost of £4.8billion. The problem is that if any of these schemes were implemented, they would also inevitably be bogged down in the planning process, with all sorts of vested interests and ‘Nimby’ viewpoints coming to the fore. It’s a wonder any new infrastructure is ever built. Perhaps we need to copy the Chinese, who seem to go from idea to implementation within a few months. Obviously, I jest, but there must surely be a happy medium.

To govern is to choose. The governments of the 1960s made some disastrous choices in implementing the local line closures recommended by Dr Beeching. Are our current politicians making the wrong choice in going ahead with HS2, rather than spending the money on local schemes?

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