In 2009, the then Labour government set up a company called HS2 Ltd to look at the possibility of a northern version of the high-speed (HS1) line running from London St Pancras to the Channel tunnel at Ashford in Kent.
The planned HS2 route was supposed to run from a new superstation in Euston to Birmingham and to split into two legs from there, one running into Manchester while the other went to Leeds. The Conservative/LibDem coalition government made the HS2 project a reality in 2012.
The cost of HS2 was projected to be around £37.5bn, but the project has been dogged with multiple problems, including popular local campaigns against routes, along with all the usual corruption associated with enterprises employing public finance. Estimates made in 2020 regarding a final price, if the project were actually completed, were claimed by the Oakervee review to be in the region of £106.6bn.
Now in 2023, with the proposed Leeds leg long-since cancelled (2021), the government of Rishi Sunak has finally announced the cancellation of the Manchester leg as well, leaving only the London to Birmingham stretch of high-speed rail – and recriminations on all sides. The expressed view of many who wanted HS2 to be completed was that the final leg to Manchester was shelved to make money available for an electoral bribe (or tax cuts, if you like) to the voters in the general election that is bearing down on us.
That may or may not be true. But what is true is that decaying capitalism in Britain has reached a level of incompetence that would have been unthinkable 100 years ago. The old capitalism was just as uncaring about the lives of ordinary working people, but members of the ruling class did understand that they themselves needed a constantly upgraded and developed infrastructure in order to more efficiently increase their profits and power. The present managers of Britain’s bourgeois dictatorship have mostly discarded production, however, and concentrate instead on stock market bingo and coupon-clipping. ‘Business speculation’, if you prefer.
Failing infrastrcture highlights Britain’s manufacturing decline
If Britain is ever to resume manufacturing in a meaningful way, and it really does need to as the rest of the world moves on and stops listening to the dictates of the few imperialist nations, it will need an updated, reliable and smooth-running infrastructure. Transport of people and goods in this country is in a thoroughly miserable state today, along with our fuel and water services, and, of course, our food industries.
The British parliamentary management has no answers. The two main political parties have both been pro and anti-HS2 over the years. Even Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Manchester who is ripping the Sunak government to pieces for cancelling the remainder of HS2, claiming that it has betrayed the north, was saying in 2020 that Boris Johnson‘s government should prioritise a Liverpool-Leeds rail link over HS2.
Mr Burnham claimed that a new trans-Pennine line was far more important for northerners, and that a northern powerhouse railway (NPR) was needed urgently. This was an echo of a call made in 2013 by Councillor Peter Box, then Labour leader of Wakefield council, who said: “A lot of people in Wakefield are not convinced. I am not convinced [by HS2],” and he further claimed that the line could suck investment and talent from the north to London, saying that east-west links should be improved first.
While the great and the good of the main bourgeois parties snipe at one other, usually from identical positions, it must be pointed out that for British industry to even survive in its current parlous state, let alone make a comeback, it really does need a new and improved infrastructure – left to right and top to bottom, including in Wales and Scotland. But of course, that will not happen under the current greed-driven and moribund political system.
Prime minister Rishi Sunak, when announcing to the 2023 Tory party conference that he was scrapping the last leg of HS2, claimed that “every penny” of the £36bn he was saving would go into transport projects in the north. But of course, such statements cannot be made without them coming under scrutiny.
Those paying attention have noticed that some of the smaller infrastructure projects he suggested using the money for have already been completed, such as the Nottingham tram system extension to Clifton South, which opened eight years ago. Others, like the A1 upgrade, have already been promised (but not delivered) by every Conservative-led government since 2010, which does not fill anyone with confidence. Meanwhile, any new trans-Pennine line is no nearer.
There have been many ministers of state with some responsibility for rail since 2010. During their extremely short tenures these now largely forgotten post-holders were incentivised to make announcements about new projects or changes to existing ones, but with little attention or care paid to the long-term consequences, since they knew they wouldn’t be there to take any flak, or praise, further downb the line. And anyway, most people didn’t believe any of the promises that they made in the first place.
The threat of a good example
Let us now have a glimpse of China over roughly the same timespan.
Since 2008, about 37,900km (23,500 miles) of high-speed rail lines, linking all the country’s major cities, have been completed.
That already impressive HS network is expected to roughly double in length again, to around 70,000km, by 2035.
By 2020, 75 percent of Chinese cities with a population of 500,000 or more had already been connected to high-speed rail links with maximum speeds of 350kph (217mph). Intercity rail travel have overtaken the dominance of airlines for many internal routes.
On some of China’s HS routes, more than 80 percent of the track is elevated, zooming above densely packed cities and valuable agricultural land on seemingly endless viaducts. More than 100 tunnels – each over 10km long – have also been bored through mountainous regions, while many spectacular long-span bridges have been thrown over natural obstacles such as the Yangtze river. All this has transformed travel and connectivity for the Chinese people.
Looking at the number one imperialist nation in the world, the USA has just one rail route that qualifies as high-speed, and that is Amtrak’s North East Corridor, where some trains can currently reach 240kph but only on relatively small and very expensively rebuilt sections of an existing line, which is shared with commuter and freight trains.
Back to Britain, during the time in which China was laying 37,900km of HS track, not even mentioning the viaducts, tunnels and new stations, imperialist Britain has managed a measly 107km.
The sheer size of China and its tremendous variations in terrain, geology and climate have presented the country’s railway engineers with incredible challenges. But the last ten years or so have seen China become the undisputed leader of HS railways in the world, from its high-tech superstations to the sheer mileage of track and the incredible speeds that its trains are safely reaching.
Chinese manufacturing and distribution has a massive edge on the world because the Chinese government has ploughed investment back into the country’s infrastructure and manufacturing base. In so doing the Chinese government is not only lifting its own people out of poverty at an incredible rate, but is also transferring this transformative technology, along with expertise and assistance, to many others across the world so that they cab do the same.
And this smashing of the west’s technological monopoly is what really frightens the imperialist vampires of the USA, Britain and the European Union.