In a panel discussion organised by the global pay-wall provider The Times this week, Baroness Lane-Fox of the Interwebs apparently suggested that the UK government should scrap investment into the HS2 programme in favour of high speed internet infrastructure.
She’s wrong. We need both. And the irony for me is that both of these initiatives are decent examples of what Tim O’Reilly described as “Government as a Platform” – investment into infrastructure around which people and companies can build and prosper.
The Greater London area is a perfect example of how growth happens around railway infrastructure. Most of it happened in an intense period between the mid-1800s and the early-1900s. The geographic shape of living and working are defined by that period. But we are not looking at history alone here – the last major investments in infrastructure (the Overground to a lesser extent and the Jubilee Line to a greater) are still shaping the city – as will the long-awaited Crossrail service currently in construction.
But long distance rail networks are also crucial to the transport of goods. Whilst much of our world is becoming digitised, stuff is still everywhere – and lorries carrying that stuff clog the transport arteries of this country. Other than the HS1 link, connecting the Channel Tunnel to London decades after the tunnel was constructed, there has been no major rail network extension in my lifetime.
What will HS2 bring? Well, there will be a stack of business cases that will tell you a bunch of things, and they’re almost all certainly wrong. It will almost certainly be more expensive than predicted, and the overall benefits will take decades to reveal and understand. That’s the nature of big infrastructure projects – but we need them alongside the stuff that runs at Internet time.
The biggest challenge for HS2, it strikes me, is that it is proposed to run through some of the wealthiest areas of the South East of England. Nobody particularly likes the idea of having change thrust upon them (heck, I live just on the edge of the Heathrow flight path – I know the problem). The rich have more means to delay or prevent.
But the idea that we should shelve long-term infrastructure investment in favour of short-term is ill-judged. It’s like saying one should have food rather than drink. Fast internet and fast train services are both things that will continue to allow people around them to build sustainable businesses. There are pros and cons to both. There are questions about how much money Government should devote to both – but, coming back to the Government as a Platform idea, there’s little chance that either will happen without tax payer stimulation. What will be the positive outcomes of either? Nobody will know for sure until we do them.