Dare to dream

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Could HS2 represent an opportunity to recapture the pioneering spirirt of our Victorian forebears?

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting York’s celebrated National Railway museum for the first time. At least, I’d expected it to be a pleasure. But much as I enjoyed my romp through rail’s golden age, I came away feeling slightly glum.

Inspiring and impressive though much of the museum’s collection is, it’s also a sobering reminder of the startling 20th century decline of Britain’s train manufacturing industry: the names on its engines a roll-call of long gone engineering giants, the hulking curves of trains likes Nigel Gresley’s Mallard hinting at an exhilarating future that never quite came to pass. The journey back down south — aboard a cramped, delayed intercity train with a  malfunctioning toilet — did little to lighten my mood. No wonder the beady-eyed enthusiast I got chatting to in the queue for the museum insisted on getting the coach everywhere.

Now I’m not advocating a return to the steam age, and it would be ridiculous to claim that UK rail travel hasn’t evolved in the past century. In many ways there has been astonishing technical progress, and the industry’s ability to run around 24,000 trains a day on a network that’s been in place for over a hundred years points to engineering know-how every bit  as impressive as that displayed by the Victorians. But the gulf between the bold, pioneering spirit of the UK’s  early rail industry, and a sector which these days tends to focus on improvements got me thinking again about HS2.

As we’ve written before, there are major question marks over the potential cost of the project and the degree to which its become a political football. There are legitimate arguments over whether the money would be better spent on improvements to the existing network, and industry hasn’t done a particularly good job of putting forward the case for the network.

But despite all of these misgivings HS2 is, at the very least, a project consistent in spirit with the ambition and  innovation the drove forward the golden age of rail. It’s big, it’s bold, it’s new, and its a vote of confidence in the future.

It’s also arguably far less risky than the great developments of the past. For whilst the enterprising Victorian pioneers of British rail travel had little idea of the eventual impact of what they were building, and would have snorted with disdain at the prospect of a cost benefit analysis, HS2 has been relatively carefully thought through.

We hear a lot – from readers, the general media, and the wider public – that UK industry has lost something, that it needs to recapture the pioneering spirit of our Victorian ancestors – Perhaps HS2 is an opportunity to do just that.