I listened to this week’s Any Questions on Radio 4, because it was held in Lichfield Cathedral, and so I knew that HS2 was bound to come up. It may have been the most boring edition of the programme ever, because the panelists all agreed with each other on everything, including their support for HS2. In that, they were at odds with the audience. If I’d been there, I’d have been inclined to heckle, but either the audience were better behaved than I am, or the Cathedral atmosphere was an inhibiting factor.
What I found disappointing about the Any Questions discussion, and the way the issue is being covered by the national media, is that only the polar sides of the debate are being represented. Either you are for HS2 and modernising our rail system, or you are against it and think people should travel less and do video conferencing instead (“Yes I’ll take 100,000 of those pork pies for my supermarkets. I’m sure they smell and taste delicious.” ”Hello, daughter, what a lovely new grandson I’ve got; the christening present is in the post.”).
I have agonised over this issue. I used to be transport campaign organiser for Staffordshire CPRE, and in that capacity I spent several years trying to prevent a new toll motorway being built between Birmingham and Manchester. I’m in favour of building a high speed rail system, but I can also see that HS2 has the potential to cause more destruction of the countryside in Staffordshire than a new motorway would have done.
The reason I support the building of high speed rail, is to do with capacity rather than speed. We must try to reduce the number of cars and lorries on our roads, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, smog, and to relieve the congestion on our road system. Building new roads is not the answer; but getting people to use trains is. At the moment, increasing inter-city services often means reducing local services. This has already happened in Staffordshire, with the closure of Etruria station, while Barlaston and Wedgwood have no trains stopping at them. The only solution is to build new track.
I am a shareholder in the Churnet Valley Railway, which is cooperating with the Moorland and City Railways in a very exciting scheme in the Staffordshire Moorlands, to open up 30 miles of disused railway, which will go from Stoke to Leek, and from there to the Lafarge quarries at Cauldon Lowe, and to the Alton Towers Theme Park. When completed it will carry freight from Cauldon Lowe to Stoke-on-Trent station and regular passengers round the Moorlands, as well as running heritage trains. It will enable people to have completely car-less holidays in the area, using trains and bikes. In my opinion, it is a brilliant way of developing the tourist industry, with minimum impact on the environment.
The scheme will also reduce the number of aggregate lorries leaving the Cauldon Lowe works. Cauldon Lowe is one of the UK’s big greenhouse gas emitters. Any measure that reduces its carbon footprint is to be welcomed, but it will also be a relief to many Staffordshire villages who have to put up with dusty, noisy lorries going through their narrow streets.
However, the aggregate will leave Staffordshire on the West Coast line and tourists will arrive on it. It has to be in the interests of Staffordshire residents to increase the capacity of that line, and that will be achieved by HS2.
I just hope that when the route through Staffordshire is being determined, the government shows as much sensitivity to local concerns as it has in the Chilterns.
I’m moving back to the Moorlands in a couple of years time. I hope that I’ll be able to celebrate my 75th birthday in 2027, by setting out in the morning to get a heritage steam train from Froghall to Leekbrook, then a local passenger train from Leekbrook to Stoke-on-Trent, an intercity to Birmingham, the HS2 to London, the Eurostar to Brussels, and then the Thalys to Cologne, and arrive in time for dinner.