ONCE or twice a month I travel by train from our nearest town, Clitheroe, to London. The journey from Clitheroe on a branch line to the mainline station at Preston is 18 miles and takes 55 minutes, including about ten minutes on Blackburn station, without doubt the coldest place on the planet, which works out at 20 miles an hour. Nearly all the rolling stock was built in the 1980s and designed to last 20 years, so it is around 40 years old and looks as if it has already been scrapped. Sometimes you feel you might have to get out and push.
At Preston I get a 125mph Pendolino train (until recently run by Virgin, now by Avanti) which covers the 220 miles to Euston in two hours 10 minutes (fastest service). If it went at the same pace as the local trains it would take eleven and a half hours. I am able to get this train, incidentally, only if my two connecting trains run on time, which they quite often don’t, partly because sections of the line are single-track, in which case I have a stressful journey and have to wait an hour for the next one to London.
The proposed HS2 will shave 34 minutes off the time from Preston to Euston, but of course will do nothing to improve the local trains. Is two hours ten minutes such a big chunk out of anyone’s life that we need to spend £100billion to reduce an already fast journey by 34 minutes?
A big problem is that most brains simply cannot comprehend £100billion, so we tend to ignore it. I have tried to find a way to visualise it without much success. Here it is in noughts: £100,000,000,000. To save 34 minutes? This astronomical sum will weigh on our descendants for generations to come. Trains will probably be obsolete by the time the debt is paid off.
Another justification for HS2 is that it will increase capacity. I have travelled at almost every available time and I have never seen anyone left on the platform. Trains can certainly be crowded but at off-peak times I am often among three or four travellers in a standard-class carriage. First class is always half empty.
A gigantic amount of money – much more than it would cost to give us a first-class local service in Lancashire and probably all the other non-London areas putting up with the same conditions – has already been spent on planning HS2 but two expressions seem apt: ‘Cut your losses’ and ‘Don’t throw good money after bad’.