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HS2: Why low speed rail - or closure - is vastly preferable to high speed

B W Edginton

8th February, 2012

Politicians, 'dynamic' business and the media (even if it denies it) all want high speed rail. But they are missing the point , says B W Edginton. After all, who wants to visit London, Birmingham, Manchester or Leeds?

Matthew Parris recently wrote a piece for The Spectator called No-one regrets a railway once it's built. The title should read, No-one regrets a railway once it's closed.  More precisely, No-one should regret a railway once it's closed. A large number of railways do close, sooner or later. Some of them should make pretty good long-distance footpaths, though few of them are given the chance. It's a legal condition of being British:  Trespassers will be prosecuted.
   
There's no unanswerable case for Low speed rail travel - it all steals time and money - but it's certainly vastly preferable to the imposition of High Speed travel by terminally ill politicians. Ultimate closure is the best case for both.
   
I've had personal experience of closed railway lines - in Worcestershire, Shropshire and Connemara. Neen Savage to Cleobury North, Craven Arms to Bishop's Castle, Clifden to Galway. I walked the Worcestershire line (which follows the Cleobury brook) shortly after Beeching had closed it. I was probably trespassing even then. I've no idea what its status is now - perhaps its been incorporated into adjacent farmland, or maybe it's an 'official' right of way, graciously open to the public. It's done nothing to deserve either private, official or legal jurisdiction over my legs. It made a nice walk.
   
The long-closed line between Craven Arms and Bishop's Castle passes alongside a local trout stream called the Onny. I rented a cottage there in the early 1970s. Some of the railway 'infrastructure' had been preserved - apparently with no especial design to do so - but much of the line was lost and un-marked. Not much scope for walking on it, though there was, of course, plenty for some sort of contrived nostalgia: farmers' wives off to market etc. - baskets of eggs, live chickens, that sort of thing. The fact is, it should now be a footpath.
   
As for Connemara: the line from Clifden to Galway, opened by the British in 1895 and closed by the Irish in 1935, passes through the central plain of that diligently ignored area, over a sizeable chunk of the botanically significant Roundstone bog, and then close to the southern shore of Lough Corrib. It's now principally remembered for its use during the Irish War of Independence by the despised (and thoroughly despicable) Black and Tans, a perfect application of the political definition of infrastructure (See Chambers Dictionary) which Matthew Parris wants us all to celebrate. No-one regrets a railway once it's built - none but the people who have to suffer its consequences!
   
Stretches of that line, here and there, have been used as footpath ever since the tracks were dismantled in the 1930s, though much of it runs parallel to the main Galway road which now tends to compromise its value in terms of peace and quiet; there's no point in trying to follow it from end to end. The railway infrastructure (in the civil engineering sense) like the roofless famine cottages of Connemara, are left un-molested, as lasting testaments to the rank stupidity of British rule, the 'glories' of 18th and 19th century Britain which define what Matthew Parris calls 'our greatest days.' 'Parliament can do anything.' 
     
Yes, I've enjoyed some of those closed railway lines - myrtle groves and alder coppice, sweetbriar and dog rose, wild clematis ('traveller's joy'), meadowsweet, rosebay, Himalayan balsam - all the nice natural stuff that the nature-phobes uproot with such glee. What else? Whinchats, stonechats, pied flycatchers, spotted flycatchers, tree pipits, meadow pipits, chiffchaffs, chaffinches, willow warblers, whitethroats, blackcaps, skylarks, peewits, snipe, curlew, whimbrel, merlin, hen harrier, yellowhammer, reed bunting, water shrew, harvest mouse etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. And the wild, gut-wrenching voice of northern wilderness from the throats of white-fronted geese arrowing in from the sky to their winter home on Lough Fada.  'Nuff said.

But many stretches of closed railway line are not worth following. If they're purposely built, like HS2, to pass through country that has already been ruined, they're not going to be of much use if and when they are closed down. It seems unlikely that HS2 will ever be closed in any modern lifetime. It's difficult to foresee the modern equivalent of Black and Tans - armies of remobilised mercenaries sent up from London to sack and burn Birmingham (though it would certainly have more justification than what happened in Ireland.)

Politicians want speed, politicians will get speed. Their own insolent work ethic demands it. 'Dynamic' business demands it. The media demands it, though it might pretend not to say so. Parliament can do anything.

I think it was Peter Hitchens who recently complained that long-life light bulbs 'take an age' to light up - an age in a split second! Can HS2 possibly be fast enough for a brave new world that has such men in it? I'd rather measure time in seasons myself, like the geese.

An LS2 might be better conceived, though completely unnecessary for reasons you may have already spotted. (Making work is not a good reason for anything.) Perhaps a low speed line could go via Cleobury brook and Craven Arms, and, of course, Edward Thomas's Addlestrop. It would all have to be re-opened, ostensibly for the nostalgia market (though that tends to defeat its own end through its own popularity) and strictly on the understanding that walkers have precedence, closure date guaranteed. Frequent Halts would need to be built in, to hear all the birds from neighbouring shires or maybe to admire the un-possessed cloudlets in the sky. (Thomas's haycocks dry might be a problem; they've all been replaced by giant, six-foot-high turds of hay, defecated in suitably enlarged fields by industrial-sized round balers and pre-wrapped for dryness in green plastic. It's not the same.)         
     
With a bit of luck, by the time you reach your destination by LS2, that dynamic business meeting might be over. You can then retrace your chug through the farmers' fields with honour restored. Where London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds are concerned, only one thing can mar the urge to travel hopefully: the almost inevitable certainty that you will, eventually, if you're not very careful, arrive.

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