It is the sort of figure that is whispered in awed, reverential tones. This is money beyond the powers of imagination, a theatre of surreal dreams.
20 billion – no, not dollars, or even euros, but pounds sterling. And bear in mind a UK billion is 1 million times a million. Enough to overheat every slot machine in Las Vegas, or keep a zoofull of Pandas for ten years.
What could we do with £20 billion?
Well, we could pay off the National Health Service deficit for the next eight years, perhaps? Or we might take everybody whose life is going to be made unbearable by the Heathrow third runway project and settle them on nice country estates with a 5 million pound fortune each to help them get by?
Maybe we could finance a nice set of aeroplanes for those aircraft carriers we are building so they don’t have to hang around looking useless for 10 years. Or, philanthropically, we might build really affordable housing for every young couple struggling to get onto the property ladder; or…
The possibilities are endless. And rest assured, those who rule us are going to spend that 20 billion. Breathlessly, I hear you cry – is it me? Are they really going to give me twe…
Yet there is an upside – a glorious, innovative project to stir patriotic pride within us all; the new rail link we call Phase One of HS2! In 2026 – only 10 years time – 15000 fat businessmen every hour will be able to ride by train from London to Birmingham in just 49 minutes. That’s a saving of 20 whole minutes on the current 9:01 from Euston, which takes 1 hour and 10 minutes (get a taxi now and you’ll be just in time to catch it).
And 15000 will, presumably, come back. But will they want to?
That’s a lot of canned people, stuffed into 18 trains doing Japanese Bullet speeds in each direction every hour. The strength of the argument for this project relies on overcrowding in the present service; but come on, people! 15000 an hour? For what, eight hours every day? Do the math, please! This is Birmingham we’re talking about!
I’ve only been to Birmingham three times in my life, and only under duress. I can think of no occasion when I actually wanted to go there. I mean no disrespect to Birmingham, which I’m sure is a fine city, although I cannot see it as the new hub of Great Britain Ltd.. No, Manchester would be a more likely candidate for that crown.
Never fear! By the middle of the century HS2 will have cut further swathes of rail to Manchester and Leeds, too, and on to Edinburgh and Glasgow, with a stop at Gretna Passport Control, if the Scots will still have us. No-one seems to have got their head around the costs for that, yet, but rest assured, the measure in human misery will exceed any official figures.
In achieving these targets the lives of thousands will be irreparably changed. Homes and heritage ripped down, noise and hazard brought to the thresholds of those for whom tranquility and peace have no price. The aim of this flagship project would seem to be political, and intended to turn the UK into one enormous City State, lucrative, doubtless, but unsustainable.
We British, it seems, have no capability to assemble a structured plan for these precious islands. Instead we flounder beneath the constant bitching of one pressure group or another, one political agenda or another with no single entity to coordinate anything. Every five years the government sets off upon a new track, postponing or promoting according to the words it thinks the public want to hear; every county sets a conflicting agenda, and nothing ever really gets done.
All that results is chaos – a long string of white elephants trailing back to the far horizons of history, each with its own tale of inhumanity and sorrow.
Oh, and as a footnote: this is British Rail we are talking about, so I assume we are going to be asked to finance another ultra-fast bus service to cover the route on Sundays?