A bullet through the heart of England

Proposals for a high-speed rail link across England have run into trouble. Campaigners say the new tracks will ruin countryside and wreck lives. Are the benefits worth the price?

Some are calling it a new English civil war. Yesterday a new front opened in the age-old battle between 'progress' and 'conservation'. Passions are high on both sides. The arguments are finely balanced. It is impossible to predict which side will win.

The battle is over a proposal for a high-speed rail link between London and the north of England. The 'phase one' idea is to build a new line from London to Birmingham opening in 2026. The 'phase two' idea (announced this week) is to extend two new lines north from Birmingham: one to Leeds and the other to Liverpool, both opening in 2033.

New "bullet trains" travelling at 250 miles per hour would whizz from London to Leeds in 1hr 20 as opposed to the current time of 2hr 20. The journey to Birmingham would take just 49 minutes as opposed to the current 1hr 24.

The 'conservation' camp says it is not against progress. It wants to improve the existing rail lines rather than build newer ones. It says improvement would be far cheaper than the estimated £32 billion cost of the project; that the difference in journey times would be minimal and that massive disruption to the countryside would be avoided.

The 'progress' camp says that it has now introduced many environmentally friendly changes to the plan. It says that the existing rail network will never be able to cope with the looming shortage of train capacity, however much improvement is done.

It predicts that for every £1 spent, the economic benefit of 'phase one' alone will be £2; in total the full project will produce a £44 billion boost to the UK and create over 40,000 new jobs. It will help spread the relative wealth of the south of England to the relatively poor north.

The most furious argument, however, is over the damage to some of our most beautiful countryside. The bullet trains could pass through the old royal hunting ground of Cannock Chase, parts of Derbyshire and Yorkshire and the deer park of Wentworth Castle.

Price of progress

Few deny that a better rail system is a good idea. The question is: can the price be measured? Supporters say it is ultimately about money and it will create more wealth than it costs. Opponents say it is about things that can't be priced: beauty, nature, people's peace and privacy: things that, once lost, can never be regained.

You Decide

  1. What value should we put on natural beauty?
  2. Is technology exciting or dangerous?

Activities

  1. What improvements would you like to see on your perfect train? Think of some ideal upgrades and write a letter to the government demanding them.
  2. In groups, rehearse the arguments either for or against the high-speed rail proposals. Then try to convince the other side.

Some People Say...

“Nothing's more important than progress.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Do we really need to improve our railways?
Britain's train lines are slow, unreliable and overcrowded, since millions of people rely on trains to get to work. When trains are too full, people use cars instead, which causes traffic problems and hurts the environment. Other countries have much better train systems.
They do?
Yes. In France, the TGV trains can reach top speeds of more than 300mph – much faster than anything we can manage. In Japan, the world's fastest train runs on magnetic rails and can hit a 361mph.
And how does building expensive railways make us money?
Building huge infrastructure projects means a lot of jobs. Also – high speed trains link up cities better, which promotes economic growth. It's hoped that a high-speed connection from London to northern England will spread wealth round the country.