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HS2: What will it take to derail today’s Lunatic Line?

23 January, 2020

ANOTHER week, another blistering report savaging HS2.

This time from the National Audit Office, which has this week published a new devastating attack on the government’s biggest infrastructure project.

It warns of out-of-control costs and further delays and states that the most recent estimate for works finishing in Euston has been quietly pushed forward to 2036 – meaning at least five more years of construction works for Camden residents.

That would be an astonishing 27 years after the project was first conceived by Lord Adonis, while the self-styled Baron of Camden Town lay soaking in his bath. We wish no harm to Mr Blair’s former adviser, but if the never-ending setbacks continue it is entirely possible he may not live to see his great legacy completed.

This week’s report is the third from the National Audit Office – each has basically said the same thing, but with worsening figures. MPs were, unquestionably, misled about the overall costs when they voted on the scheme.

Frank Dobson, the late MP for Holborn and St Pancras, was years ahead of his time in voicing outright opposition. The failures of Camden Council to attack the project in its infancy are on record.

It is the lobbying of property developers, keen to cash in on the levelled-land around Euston station, not empathy with struggling passengers of the North, that keeps HS2 rolling on.

Hundreds of Camden residents submitted objections during the official petitioning process in Parliament in 2015-16. No changes were made.

The project rolls on regardless of public opinion, expert advice and basic commons sense and our supposedly representative democracy seem incapable of stopping it.

What would it take to finally pull the plug on HS2? World War Three? An extraterrestrial invasion?

There is a historical lesson, perhaps, in the cautionary tale of the state-owned Ugandan Railway, founded in 1895, which bulldozed through east Africa despite widespread criticism in the Parliament of the day.

Huge capital sums were ploughed into the project which was deaf to criticism about the investment, concern for poor conditions of construction workers, disruption of tribes, devastation of wildlife and man-eating lions pulling workers out of carriages. All this led the railway to be dubbed the Lunatic Line, or Lunatic Express.

But the project went ahead because of supporters – including the British Conservative statesman George Curzon – who insisted that not to build it would be a sign of weakness, and a betrayal of British imperialist values. The same nakedly patriotic arguments are being made today with HS2.

The Whig MP Henry Labouchère, a fierce opponent of the scheme, wrote a poem to Parliament that today’s crop of politicians should pay attention to:

What it will cost no words can express,
What is its object no brain can suppose,
Where it will start from no one can guess,
Where it is going to nobody knows,
What is the use of it, none can conjecture,
What it will carry, there is none can define,
And in spite of George Curzon’s superior lecture,
It is clearly naught but a lunatic line.

HS2 is the Lunatic Line of the 21st century.

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