HS2 and the Booker Prize

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.

3 thoughts on “HS2 and the Booker Prize

  1. I also find it ironic that Mr. F is utterly devasted by the hundred thousand billlion zillion beautiful fields in the Chiltern/Cotswolds hills are going to be utterly annihlated by evil HS2 line, but he is quite happy to suggest bulldozing lots of fields to make way for more runways at airports in Manchester, Birmingham or Leeds. It’s people like this who utterly discredit any notion that the anti-HS2 campaigers have and green intentions at all (and no, driving your 4×4 round the Chiltern Hills to look at the pretty view with a nasty train spoiling it isn’t green transport). Can we expect StopHS2 and HS2AA to distance themselves from Mr. F? Seeing as StopHS2 is retweeting this, I assume the answer is no.

    More seriously, any sub at the Express could easily has proof-read this and warned Mr. Forsyrth of the vast number of clangers he’s put in. He could still have put up a reasonable argument without all those stupid inaccuracies. The fact that the Express made no attempt to verify any of these claims seem the most compelling argument yet that most anti campaigners don’t care in the slightest whether their arguments are true or false as long as it whips up more hysteria.

  2. ‘Hard nosed facts’ about East and West Coast are not particularly easy to find.

    Network Rail and train operating companies are not covered by FOI or EIR queries, and there is no public data for loadings on individual trains, energy consumption, or track maintenance costs.

    The HS2 concept does not provide for freight operation. Nighttime freight and daytime 18-passenger-trains-per-hour, are mutually exclusive objectives.

    Adding “released capacity” railfreight and more “local and regional passenger services” to the WCML are also mutually exclusive objectives.

    Hardly any freight runs on HS1, even though there are lots of spare paths. It doesn’t appear to be commercially viable.

    (On the contrary, East Coast says it is covered by FoI because it is a government-owned operation, and the premiums I quote are public information, included in DOR’s annual report. When speaking of freight on HS2, I did say ‘could’. It is a long way off and there is no overwhelming technical factor evident in the present plans preventing such a development. Freight on HS1 has been growing recently, assisted by the new development of 4m containers being worked through to Barking. There are several issues presently constraining the growth of railfreight through the Channel Tunnel, including rules imposed with doubtful legality by certain continental railway administrations.—Sim Harris.)

  3. Oh dear, yet more diatribe from ‘celebrities’, I think Mr Forsyth should stick to writing his mediocre books, rather than commenting on how a railway is built, opearted and how it does or does not fit in to the countryside. As a specialist in the field of railways and land use, I can certainly lay claim to knowing more about the effect of railways on property, land and land use than most people. As such, I suggest taht the governemnt points out that it is the capacity of the new raiwlay which is thr focus, not the time. They should also highlight that the railway is more environmentally friendly than a motorway or aeroplanes, it uses less land in any one location than does an airport or a motorway (a double track railway the equivalent width of a normal road), and that it requires less connecting infrastructure than both an airport or Motorway. I wonder if people would complain so much if HS2 was compared with a motorway and people were given the option between the two?

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