The age of the train

Construction starts on Britain’s first mainline railway since Victorian times


A century ago, Britain led the way on transport. Tarmacked roads, the train and the jet airliner were all British inventions. But since then it has fallen behind. Politicians have dithered about where to put basic infrastructure. No new runways have been built in the booming south-east since the second world war. Britain’s railways are decades behind the rest of Europe. Apart from the Channel Tunnel link, the country has yet to build a high-speed line. And its clogged roads need at least £12bn ($14.8bn) to repair them to a good condition.

In 2017 Britain will begin to catch up. Construction will start on the first phase of HS2, a high-speed railway from London to Birmingham and the north, the country’s first new mainline railway since the 1890s. While trains on most of Britain’s mainlines chug along at just 125mph (200kph), trains on HS2 will go at more than 250mph. But construction will be slow and expensive. The first phase, going only as far as the West Midlands, will cost over £28bn and is scheduled to open in 2026.

It is just one of a catalogue of infrastructure projects Britain’s new government wants to get on with. In 2016, after some dithering, Theresa May gave the green light to Hinkley Point, an £18bn nuclear-power plant built with French technology and Chinese investment. In October 2016 she gave the go ahead to a plan to expand Heathrow, though Parliament will vote on this only in winter 2017, prolonging more than 70 years of official procrastination over where to build a new runway in south-east England. Work has begun on the Thames Tideway Tunnel, a £4.2bn super-sewer under London. And the Elizabeth Line (or Crossrail), a £15bn underground railway that will stretch 60 miles across London and its satellite towns, will open in 2018.

Plenty more projects, still in the planning phase, sit in the government’s in-tray. Transport for London, the capital’s devolved transit authority, is lobbying hard for permission and the cash to build Crossrail 2, a new underground service on the same scale as the Elizabeth Line. Other regions are anxious not to be left out. Transport for the North has put forward plans for HS3, a high-speed railway between Manchester and Leeds that would cost £6bn, as well as an 18-mile road tunnel under the Peak District.

But the government’s new-found enthusiasm for grand projects needs to be met with more cash. Between 2010 and 2016 the Department for Transport’s budget was cut by 13.4% in real terms, hitting construction and maintenance spending hard. Britain’s roads are more clogged, trains are more crowded and the number of buses has fallen in spite of rising demand. In 2016 the World Economic Forum ranked the quality of Britain’s infrastructure 24th in the world, lower than America’s, and down from 19th a decade before.

Some money will come from the private sector. Under the previous government’s plans, public investment was projected to fall by half between 2010 and 2020. Although much of the money for the Elizabeth Line and HS2 will come from the Treasury, London’s super-sewer and its new runway at Heathrow will be mostly privately funded.

There are hopes that Brexit will loosen the public purse-strings. Since the vote to leave the EU, political support for more infrastructure spending has grown. It would help soften the economic blow from Brexit and boost long-term growth. The new chancellor, Philip Hammond, has ditched the government’s objective of achieving a surplus by 2020. At least in the short term Brexit, though bad for many British businesses, could give infra­structure a boost.

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