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Simon Jenkins on HS2

This time (The Guardian, 10th August) Simon Jenkins attacks not only HS2 but also the wider rail network: “Like it or not, roads are the lifeline of the economy”. Yes, but we can’t sustainably expand the road network (Jenkins wants motorway congestion eased); expanding the rail network is the better approach.

Simon Jenkins knows this really, and as long it isn’t high-speed, he favours expenditure on rail, for the “chronically underfunded commuter network”. Bizarrely he calls for HS2 trains to operate over Crossrail tracks through central (“…tunnels are wide enough”), to avoid the expense of the planned HS2 terminus at Euston.

Your readers deserve better than this. HS2 frees up capacity on the existing railways so that more commuter (and more freight) services can be accommodated. It’s not an either/or choice of better intercity or commuter services: HS2 creates both. And the Crossrail tunnels will be full enough with Elizabeth Line trains every 2-3 minutes – no doubt to Simon Jenkins’s chagrin: he’s long opposed Crossrail too.

All new infrastructure is bad, it seems, but he claims we “cannot even afford” what is apparently sweeping across the continent, “modern on-board signalling, which is drastically increasing line capacities”. So, he’s ignoring the central section of Thameslink, which recently established a world first: cab signalling and computerised train control on part of a main line network. Not that it would be much use without the major track and station infrastructure improvements at London Bridge and elsewhere.

Jenkins claims pedigree for his hostility to HS2 in Sir Rod Eddington who, he suggests, “dismissed high-speed as outdated” in his report of December 2006. This is perhaps a forgivable error: it wasn’t until four months later in front of the Transport Select Committee that Sir Rod explained it was new untried technology he opposed (MAGLEV was the fashion of the day); as for conventional high-speed rail, he was all for it, suggesting a line from London to Birmingham and Manchester. Sounds like HS2 to me.

But elsewhere Jenkins is plain wrong and there is no excuse. He says that HS2 will not go to “central Manchester…Sheffield or Leeds” but these city centres are exactly where HS2 will go.

In an earlier Guardian column (December 2015) Simon Jenkins said “the reality is that the greenest places on earth are cities”. True enough. For cities – in Britain at least –the lifeline is the rail network, the only way to have the greater densities Jenkins himself advocates. HS2 will foster urban growth: inter-linking our major cities and allowing their commuter networks to expand.

Jim Steer

Director, Greengauge 21

Former head of strategic planning, Strategic Rail Authority