Britain’s Bold New Plan for High-Speed Rail

While the speed and frequency of Britain’s railways might be the envy of many North Americans, the U.K. still has some way to go before it catches up with the seamless high-speed train services of its continental European neighbors. Following an announcement Tuesday, however, that’s set to change. A controversial high-speed rail project was green-lighted by the U.K. government this week that would connect Britain’s four largest metros.

With the line’s first stage to Birmingham approved in 2017—then put on hold by the government last summer—the high-speed initiative already has a long history of controversy behind it, and has faced accusations of excessive cost and prioritizing Londoners’ needs over those of northerners. But if the project is executed right, it could nudge people away from not just the highways, but also some popular domestic flight routes.

The 330 miles of new high-speed railway, referred to as HS2 and championed yesterday by Prime Minister Johnson, would connect London with Birmingham and then go onwards in two branches to the northern cities of Manchester and Leeds, on trains capable of speeds of up to 250 miles per hour. While the use of the fastest tracks all the way has not yet been fully confirmed, high-speed rail could revolutionize north-south travel in England, shaving an hour off the journey time between London and Manchester and tripling the current capacity of trains along the route.

(Marie Patino)

HS2 would only be Britain’s second high-speed link, after the Eurostar service from London to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. Criticism of the project stretches back more than a decade.

There are several grounds for protesting the line. In a country where the capital tends to get the lion’s share of resources, many northerners have wondered why a super-fast link to London was approved before a project to improve east-west rail service between cities in Northern England, a region they believe is in more urgent need of rail improvement. Environmental protesters have also fought plans to carve the high-speed track through protected woodlands and vulnerable habitats (while nonetheless rerouting slightly to avoid a golf course). On top of this, many people have seen the ballooning budget and started to worry that the new link is little more than a state-subsidized gravy train.

There are strong arguments, nonetheless, that HS2 will deliver benefits, both to the environment and to travelers who don’t have London as their final destination. By moving long-distance north-south traffic onto the new high-speed link, the project will free up space to increase train frequency on other parts of the network, which are currently working (and just about managing) at close to capacity. And while tree-planting exercises cannot fully make up for the loss of ancient trees, the link could help to deliver massive carbon savings for the U.K.

That’s because increasing train speeds and capacity could slash road traffic and trim some air traffic, too. Train travel will become a more attractive option when the London-to-Manchester journey time almost halves, from 2 hours 8 minutes to 1 hour 8 minutes. With onward journeys on existing non-high-speed tracks to Northeast England and Scotland also shortening, train journeys from London to Edinburgh and Glasgow would also drop markedly (to three hours, 38 minutes each) if the track is built to its fullest proposed extent, encouraging more travelers onto the rails and away from what are currently popular flight routes. Some estimates suggest that HS2 could help the U.K. cut back as much as 600,000 tons of carbon emissions over the next 60 years.

That savings, however, could be offset by other policy decisions. Already, there are suggestions that Prime Minister Johnson may be pushing HS2 as a means to expand Birmingham Airport as a terminal for London, a plan that would allow him to avoid an expansion of Heathrow Airport unpopular with the Conservative Party’s base in the London exurbs. That expansion might well cut into any carbon savings, but for now, the U.K.’s transit network looks set to become notably faster, slicker and cleaner.

It won’t do so in a hurry, however, and financial obstacles remain. High-speed services will, at the last estimate, start to run between London and Birmingham any time between 2028 and 2031, while services to Manchester and Leeds may not begin until as late as 2040. The cost of completion, meanwhile, could be astronomical. Government documents leaked recently suggest the budget could rise as high as 106 billion pounds ($137 billion), a huge jump from the initial 2011 estimate of 32.7 billion pounds, even if you take inflation into account. Aware of the difficulties of securing support for this kind of sum, the government is already suggesting that trains might in fact run a little slower after Birmingham, a choice that could cut costs but inflame fears that the north is still getting a raw deal.

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Britain Plans a Memorial for Grenfell, a Tragedy That’s Far From Over

Eight months later, it still feels brutally early to be discussing a memorial at London’s Grenfell Tower. Destroyed on June 14 after flammable cladding turned a domestic fire into a lethal blaze, the still-gutted, uninhabitable public housing tower remains a grim reminder of last summer’s tragedy, where 71 people died and many more were injured or made homeless. Ultimately though, according to a U.K. government press release published Thursday, the site will become a formal memorial to the fire’s victims.

The announcement of the plan—which could also see the nearby Latimer Road Tube station renamed to Grenfell—strikes the right note so far, making it clear that residents of the West London housing project will get the deciding say on any kind of memorial that happens on the tower’s site.

The announcement is nonetheless treading on delicate ground. The aftershocks of this tragedy, after all, are still very much present. Eight months later, the handling of the Grenfell fire remains a running scandal of official incompetence and indifference, broken promises, and ongoing hardship for the former residents. Perhaps worst of all, at many sites across the U.K., a disaster like this could happen at any moment for all the same reasons.

This is, after all, a tragedy that could easily have been avoided with proper safety standards. The blaze was sparked by a small domestic fire that could have been contained under normal circumstances. A cheap aluminum composite cladding—banned on tall buildings in Germany and the U.S., but permitted in Britain—caused the fire to spread with alarming speed. Unbearably, residents were well aware of the flaws and actively petitioned to have them changed.

You might expect cladding of this type to have been stripped off every single building by now. In fact, this work has barely begun. At the time of the fire, 301 buildings across Britain were covered in the flammable cladding that proved so lethal at Grenfell. This week, the government announced that only seven of those buildings have fully removed the cladding. All told, only 4 percent of British social housing covered in the flammable material have been stripped and renovated.

Meanwhile, the trauma continues for the project’s residents. Just this week, the fire’s toll rose once more with the death of Maria Del Pilar Burton, a 74-year-old tower resident who had remained in the hospital after suffering severe burns. Burton’s neighbors, who were mostly public housing tenants, remain largely without permanent housing in one of London’s most expensive areas, despite a thin strip of public housing on its northern edge. By Christmas, only 49 of Grenfell Tower’s 207 households had found permanent homes. The rest remained in temporary accommodation or, for the majority, hotels.

Residents of the complex that surrounded the tower—living beneath a burned-out hulk where their neighbors died—are still experiencing intermittent hot water and central heating, and faltering gas supplies. Meanwhile, their social landlord has proposed to start charging them rent once more.

The burned out tower as it appeared in September 2017, three months after the fire. Eddie Keogh/Reuters

There’s an overwhelming sense from locals that they aren’t being sufficiently represented or listened to at the public inquiry. Take all that together and it’s no wonder why the Grenfell Tower disaster remains unhealed. Even before the fire, the neighborhood’s situation was paradoxical: London’s poorest ward, located within the city’s wealthiest borough, housing many people who believed that local officials saw them only as an inconvenience. That belief was only confirmed by the distant, unaccountable handling of the aftermath.

Much of the public agrees with them. Last month at the Brit Awards, Britain’s main music award ceremony, hip hop artist Stormy made headlines by using a performance to ask, “Theresa May, where’s the money for Grenfell?” A subsequent petition demanding more involvement for residents in the public inquiry has so far gathered 155,000 signatures.

Into this chaotic, embittered situation walks the proposal to preserve the Grenfell Tower site as a memorial. It might ultimately turn out well as a plan. If residents genuinely get to pilot the process, this memorial could be a fitting tribute and site of remembrance for the fire’s victims. Right now, it nonetheless feels like a monument for a tragedy that’s still far from over.

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