THERE HAVE been many works of fiction about railways. One of Sherlock Holmes’ cases involved a body found on the Underground near Aldgate, A J Cronin was able to use the Tay Bridge disaster to dispose of a character, while the adventures of E Nesbit’s Railway Children have become a much-loved legend. In more recent times railways have formed the basis of dramas or comedies on both radio and television.
The novelist Frederick Forsyth has now followed this tradition by sketching out a little effort of his own about HS2 for the Daily Express, and rollicking fun it is too.
The author is to be congratulated for keeping a straight face while sharing his intriguing fantasies with us — indeed, a careless reader might even gain the fleeting impression that the article is intended to be factual.
However, it soon becomes clear that this is a work of imagination, when we are told that HS2 is “planned to destroy great swathes of the beautiful Cotswolds”. This will be news to the good people of Charlbury or Stroud, considering that Phase 1 is routed through the Chilterns, which is spelt differently and some way further east. Whether ‘great swathes’ are actually at risk – anywhere – is another dubious contention, but then this is just a story.
As a former journalist as well as a novelist, Mr Forsyth naturally knows the difference between fact and fiction, and so he must be intent on amusing rather than informing when he tells us: “The Government, avid to spend £33 billion which we do not have, is mounting a wild propaganda campaign which no one seems to be querying”.
This, then, is a parallel universe, where the StopHS2 campaign does not exist and neither it nor Aylesbury Golf Club have ever been near the High Court. What fun.
With his metaphorical gloves now definitely off, the author then wades in still more deeply when he assures us, with a fine disregard of tense, that HS2 “doesn’t stop and it certainly doesn’t carry freight”. It is true that HS2 does not carry freight – yet – but then it hasn’t been built.
In reality it could offer a nightly route for international freight, first to the Midlands and later to the north west and Yorkshire, with four-metre containers carried all the way. At the moment these containers, a commonplace on the continent, can penetrate this country no farther than Barking, but at least HS1 can bring them that far.
However, Mr Forsyth is now well up in the air and, appropriately enough, at this point he makes a plea for aviation. “We must bring in the foreign businessmen for it is they who bring the orders and the prosperity. But they want to fly in so why not upgrade Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds airports into real international airline hubs?”
There is no doubt that the airports at these places have a future, but whether they should be used for short-haul flights from the near-continent is a different matter. In fact, Eurostar has almost killed the market for flights between London and Brussels, and only one in five passengers still fly between London and Paris. HS2 is set to tilt the modal balance in favour of rail still further, to the everlasting benefit of the environment.
Mr Forsyth certainly has a fine imagination, and by now he has released it at full throttle: “To make matters worse this is the same department (Transport) which has just been excoriated by a judge for awarding the West Coast Main Line franchise to First Group on the basis of ‘research’ that was absolute rubbish.”
Um. Leaving aside the fact (one is going to creep in now and again) that the West Coast franchise collapse was caused essentially by faulty financial modelling rather than ‘research’, just when was the DfT ‘excoriated’ (good word, though) by a judge over the matter? Sam Laidlaw, it is true, had some ‘uncomfortable’ things to tell the transport secretary, but Mr Laidlaw is not a judge, and the issue has not been tested in court.
But, as I said earlier, this is a story, and in Mr Forsyth’s parallel universe not only did the anti-HS2 groups not go to court (indeed do not exist) but the West Coast case did.
Never one to resist an irrelevance, the author then alleges: “Before HS2 was the East Coast Main Line, from London to Edinburgh. Is it working? Hard-nosed facts are rare, always a bad sign. I have read it can only fill a third of its seats and is losing fortunes.”
Read where, exactly? ‘Hard nosed facts’ about East Coast are actually available in abundance from the ORR in National Rail Trends and indeed the DfT, whose wholly-owned subsidiary Directly Operated Railways reports that in the year to March 2012 East Coast paid premiums to the DfT of £188.6 million – up from £176.3 million the previous year.
So there you have it. A delicious fantasy from one of Britain’s most celebrated authors. Heartily recommended to lovers of fiction, and surely a contender for a future Booker Prize.
E Nesbit would have been proud.