Once upon a time, before the railways were privatised, if offered a job interview in London I could ask for the interview to take place at 2pm, catch the 7am train from Edinburgh Waverley, be certain that I would reach London King’s Cross before noon, and – with a pause only to make sure I had English banknotes in my wallet – get to the job interview usually with an hour to spare. I’d allow the full afternoon for the interview and catch an evening train home. It may seem strange to youngsters these days, but I could count absolutely on getting there on time with no delays at either end: and the train fare – even at short notice – didn’t require me to remortgage my house.
Those days are gone. Nowadays we pay high fares for bad service. The majority of us want the rail services renationalised, but instead, like a shiny toy to make us happy, Labour and Conservative governments have been dangling HS2 in front of us so that we can bat at that with our paws.
On Wednesday 20th May, Angus Robertson distributed jobs among the new SNP MPs. Drew Hendry became the SNP’s Transport spokesperson, and a few days later the Independent on Sunday contacted him to tell him there’d be no high-speed rail link between London and Edinburgh.
This is not news.
In July 2013, Gordon Macintyre-Kemp wrote in Business for Scotland:
The UK Government has approved plans to build HS2, a £48.2 billion pound high speed train service between “London and the North of England”, their words, although it will actually go to and from London and Manchester/Leeds. Given I was brought up in Hexham in Northumberland, Manchester is not even the North of England to me nor indeed many Northern England voters! It was originally supposed to come to Scotland and the Scottish government hopes it still will but it was deemed too expensive and may not happen in our lifetimes.
By April 2014, five months before the referendum, anonymous sources were telling the Independent on Sunday that the possibility of extending HS2 into Scotland was being jolly well looked at:
the Government and Sir David Higgins, who leads HS2 Ltd, are keen to expand the new railway further and make it the spine of Britain’s network. In November, Transport minister Baroness Kramer asked HS2 Ltd to look into options for a third phase taking the line into Scotland, with findings due this year .
As well as the option of extending HS2, existing lines could be upgraded, or there might be a combination of the two. There has also been talk of a distinct line requiring an interchange, crossing a city via metro links, in a move that would effectively create a High Speed Three.
It would appear to a neutral observer that the only reason HS2 extended into Scotland was being discussed was precisely so that “a cabinet minister” could say anonymously that “an extra link was almost inconceivable in the event of a Yes vote for independence in September, due to the added cost burden on UK finances to a country that was no longer in the union.”
“The high-speed railway is a substantial public investment and it’s difficult to see how that investment would be justified from south of the border.”
Another anonymised source described only as “A Scottish pro-union MP” was quoted in the same April 2014 story
“Many of us would like to see HS2 extended to the central belt of Scotland, but I couldn’t see an independent Scotland being able to afford it nor English taxpayers subsidising them.”
The Department of Transport have been claiming that HS2 would cut travel times to London, which will certainly be true for the cities HS2 is to serve: besides London, that will be Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds. As it’s ultimately planned that all direct trains from Edinburgh or Glasgow to London will be cancelled, to ensure passengers must travel on (and help pay for) the HS2 line, any time saved by speed of travel from the HS2 terminus is likely to be lost in crossing the city from the regular line to make the connection. The KPMG report was clear: the HS2 line is to benefit primarily the south of England, and the north-east of Scotland, from Dundee to Aberdeen, would be big losers once HS2 was operating. (The report was not intended to be made public: a freedom of information request got it published in September 2013.)
HS2 Phase One, London Euston to Birmingham Curzon Street, is scheduled to open in 2026. Phase Two, extending HS2 slightly north of Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds and an East Midlands Hub at Toton, is expected to be complete and operational by 2033. Allowing for the usual slippage in projects of this size, I’d say more likely 2050, but the point is rather moot: unless the railways are renationalised, I don’t expect to be able to afford to take the train from Edinburgh to London in 2033, no matter how fast the trip is.
Drew Hendry was the leader of the Highland Council until he won the Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey constituency from Danny Alexander on 7th May: he’d been an SNP councillor since 2007. The Highlands are a large area of Scotland ill-served by public transport. Councillors may have to travel over a hundred miles from where they live to get to a council meeting in Inverness, with consequent large travel expenses. A councillor who has been dealing with infrastructure in a region the size of Belgium is not a naive and inexperienced politician, even if he’s only been an MP for two weeks and Transport spokesperson for his party for three days.
Mark Leftly, political correspondent for the Independent on Sunday claims that Drew Hendry “reacted with fury” when he was told that there’d be no HS2 link to Scotland.
The official SNP response to the Independent on Sunday is published on their website, and the IoS have republished it with a few edits as Drew Hendry’s “furious” response.
The IoS edited quote was: “The Westminster establishment … seems committed to keeping Scotland in the slow lane.”
The full paragraph was: “The Westminster establishment have shown a total lack of ambition throughout the development of plans for HS2 and seems committed to keeping Scotland in the slow lane.”
The IoS edited quote was: “There is an undeniable economic case to connect Scotland to the rest of the UK and the Continent. [It …] will improve connectivity and remove barriers for businesses in remote and rural parts of the country.”
The full paragraph was: “There is an undeniable economic case to connect Scotland to the rest of the UK and the continent. Inclusion of Scotland in Westminster’s HS2 plans will improve connectivity and remove barriers for businesses in remote and rural parts of the country.”
You can say that the SNP are being a tad hypocritical in wanting Scotland included in Westminster’s plans while also wanting Scotland to be independent, and that’s inarguable: if Scotland becomes independent, railway lines northward from Berwick-upon-Tweed will be the responsibility of the Scottish government. But this tad of hypocrisy from the SNP is a molehill to the Ben Nevis hypocrisy of David Higgins and David Cameron pretending that HS2 might be extended to Scotland if the Scots voted No, when an HS2 line to Scotland was literally never in their scale of thinking: they have only the “total lack of ambition” for HS2 to be primarily a commuter line from London to Birmingham.
Why then present Drew Hendry’s reaction to this no-news story as a drama? There are now 49 SNP MPs at Westminster who have never been MPs before: it must seem like good odds that one or more of them will do something embarrassing in their first few months that the London-centric media can delight in.
The Independent and the Independent on Sunday are owned by Russian oligarchs Alexander and Evgeny Lebedev, and they came out in favour of another Tory/LibDem coalition and against the SNP on 5th May, calling the SNP “a wrecking ball poised to hit Westminster”. The decision of the paper’s owners to support Conservative/LibDem government apparently came as a surprise to many of the paper’s staff, but it would seem that now they know what their oligarchs want, they’re ready to deliver.