Want to know what’s wrong with the plans for HS2? Just look to France.
That’s the view of Deanne DuKhan (pictured below), Director of AGAHST (Action Groups Against High Speed Two), established in 2010 in response to government plans for the new high speed rail link to connect London with Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.
Seeking to understand why dozens of groups have emerged in opposition to the ambitious project, we asked for her views on what HS2 might mean for commuters.
Deanne’s objections to High Speed Rail Two are borne out of personal experience.
“I’m opposed to HS2 as a life-long commuter,” she says, her words revealing an American accent.
“I’m from Connecticut,” she explains, “but I’ve lived near and commuted into four of the world’s biggest international commuting cities: Los Angeles, New York, Paris and London.
“In each one the story has been the same: everything’s far too congested; things don’t work properly; trains are overcrowded.
“The money just isn’t there and it’s hard for someone to stand up and take the painful decision that £50billion+ needs spending to solve these problems.”
If under-investment is the problem, why are she and others opposed to spending almost exactly that amount on rail infrastructure like HS2?
“The problem is that HS2 is a long-distance service; any commuter will tell you that long-distance services are not where the problem lies.
“If I’m on a crowded train, it’s not because of people who are travelling from far away or heading to or from the North.
“It’s because of other people trying to get on at Chiswick, Watford and so on: the issues arise from congestion and overcrowding on shorter routes – commuter journeys – HS2 does nothing to address that.”
Deanne insists it’s a question of money, too.
“We’re being told that it won’t impact on the budget to improve commuter journeys,” she says, adding: “but that’s ludicrous.”
It’s here that her experience of Parisien working life informs her views.
“If London commuters want to understand why they should oppose HS2 – and oppose it big time – they should go to Paris and try to commute from a suburb into the city centre.
“The French experience shows that when you sign up to high speed rail it’s a very, very big negative to the rest of the network because it drains away all the funding that is so desperately needed for commuting services. That’s exactly what’s happened in Paris.”
Deanne explains that from the time the French government signed up to TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse – their equivalent of high speed rail), the services connecting central Paris to les banlieues became a disaster.
“The services are so bad it’s not just that there are delays and unbelievable overcrowding, but worse than that, they have stations that are in an appalling condition – it’s ugly stuff,” she says.
Deanne’s focus on the financial downsides are one of the chief objection points for the anti-campaign as a whole here in the UK.
“What we saw on the day of the Spending Review was incredible: literally an hour before parliament voted in favour of HS2 there was an announcement that the budget for the project had gone up by £9.9bn – and nobody seemed to blink an eye!”
Indeed, on 26 June Patrick McLoughlin, the secretary of state for transport, revised the estimated cost of the project up from £32.7 billion to £42.6 billion—or £50 billion if the price of rolling stock is included.
“They just happily went on to vote to give HS2 a blank cheque. The amount they have released in funding is unspecified.”
Yet the latest increase in budget appears to have helped strengthen the anti-campaign.
“Public opinion is opposed to spending money on this project; after the latest vote there was an outcry.
“We’ve been saying for a long time that the idea that the budget would be £32bn is ridiculous – it’s going to be far closer to £100bn and the government’s been accusing us of scaremongering, but now it’s turning out that that’s exactly what’s happening.”
(Since our interview with Deanne, even Boris Johnson has confirmed this suspicion, weighing in to the argument suggesting that the project is likely to hit “£70 billion or more”.)
“My main concern,” she continues, “is that I do not see a way that this could not drain the transport budget, and pull funds away from more localised, short-distance, commuter based services.”
Especially jarring for Deanne is the fact that the increase in spending comes at a time when cutbacks are being made across most other sectors.
“We have to recognise that these decisions are being made in a time of austerity; every penny is precious in terms of public money.
“Yet still they [the government] want to spend billions on this particular project.”
There’s also the question of demand.
“We don’t see where the demand is coming from to make HS2 viable – these routes are already well serviced.”
“The proposition they give is that leisure travellers will use this service and spend more to save 20-30minutes – I just don’t buy that premise.”
“At the end of the day you’ll have a premium, low demand, long-distance service taking away funding from some critical short-distance commuter services.”
A case of David and Goliath?
If the arguments above provide the essence of the anti-campaign’s argument, who exactly is in this ‘no’ camp?
A casual internet trawl of ‘No to HS2’ reveals dozens of groups that object to the project.
“AGAHST is the federation of about 90 community-based action groups up and down the route,” Deanne clarifies, “We’re like an umbrella, working to coordinate the efforts of those other groups.
“There’s other organisations that we work with, but technically aren’t under the umbrella.
“Everyone has different reasons for opposing it but the issue’s profile is highest in communities along the route.
“Initially some thought, ‘Ok, this is in the national interest and hopefully there’ll be good compensation’, and that was that.
“But then people started looking into the detail and said, ‘Hang on: it doesn’t connect to HS1; it’s not going to the city centre in Birmingham’; the ‘hang ons’ kept piling up and before long people came to the conclusion that the whole project just didn’t make sense.
“The campaign became very quickly not about mitigating and compensating those affected by the plans, but rather to stop it – it’s going to be a disaster.”
So why are politicians of all three major parties for it?
Deanne pauses for this one.
“Unfortunately I think there’s a fear: because there’s cross party support none of the three main parties wants to be seen to be the one that gives up on it first – they’re afraid of the political consequences.
“The arguments for HS2 are – in my view – so weak that I just cannot see any other justification.”
Let’s talk strategy
What is the no campaign’s strategy for opposing the plans?
Deanne clarifies how the different groups have different focuses: “Stop HS2 specialises in mobilising the campaign from the grassroots.
“HS2 Action Alliance is the group that does all the research and analysis, and deals with external bodies and experts.
“Then there’s AGAHST: we tend to deal more with the political side of things and policy makers and we’re trying to get the word out as much as possible.
“It’s really difficult though as we’re up against a pretty sophisticated and well-financed PR machine – the pro-camp [the government and HS2 Ltd] have come back at us with some pretty horrible PR campaigns including some really cynical ones.
Did you see that one: “Their lawns, Our jobs” in Manchester with a guy in a bowler hat? Seriously!
“They’ve called us NIMBYs; they’ve tried to paint the opposition as only being in the Chilterns because the Chilterns are somehow a byword for wealth – it’s nonsense.
“It’s been difficult to get our message heard, but increasingly we keep being validated by respected outside bodies and experts.
“One of the most important experts in the field is Professor John Whitelegg: he’s the transport advisor for the Green Party and he uses the word ‘Baffled’ to describe the project – he just doesn’t understand the logic; a lot of experts are using the term ‘Baffled’ to describe the plans.”
The National Audit Office and The New Economics Foundation agree. The Economist is against the project, too.
How long do they have to fight the campaign?
“The only point of no return is when they get the bulldozers out – and even then you can expect people to continue to fight it.
“We think going into the hybrid bill all the people and groups that oppose this really need to make their voices heard. The bill’s due at the end of this year – that’s crunch time for us.”
What can you do?
If someone wants to register an objection to the plans, what’s the best thing they can do? we ask.
“Sign up to our campaign – we’re writing an alternative proposal for how to spend money in the transport budget and we’ll be getting major bodies to sign up to that.
“People think that tweeting their friends or writing to your MP doesn’t make a difference, but all those little acts add up – they make a big difference.
“Let your local policy makers know that you don’t agree with the government spending money in this way.
“And tell the Mayor of London and the London Assembly that commuters will not stand for any compromise in their services in the name of HS2.”
HS2 seems to provoke strong feelings on both sides of the debate, so what’s your view? Do you think it will affect your commuter service for good or bad? Does Britain need to invest in High Speed Rail? Share your thoughts by commenting below.