Having a Plan B is not a sign of weakness

Since my walk along the route of HS2 in July I’ve been very aware that my imagined rail line may not match the reality.  So it was that one Friday morning I found myself in Rochester, about to walk over the North Downs to Maidstone along part of the existing route of HS1.  I wanted to find out how the line has impacted on the Kent Downs AONB, which I’ll cover in the next blog post.  But first I wanted to explore what HS1 means for a town like Rochester, now that the Javelin domestic service is up and running.

Rochester is probably one of our least well known Cathedral Cities.  In fact it’s not even a city any more.  It gave up that distinction after nearly 800 years when the City of Rochester merged with Gillingham to form Medway Council in 1998.  Wikipedia mutters darkly about bureaucratic bungling, claiming that Rochester lost its City status due to an administrative oversight, which sounds a bit careless.

Rochester is all quaint history, to its neighbour Chatham’s rough tough dock town image (although the famous Naval Dockyard actually closed almost 30 years ago now).  The historic High Street, once part of the main Dover Road, includes the building on which Charles Dickens modelled Miss Havisham’s Satis House in Great Expectations.  He lived locally at Higham, and the traders of Rochester certainly can’t be accused of underselling the Dickens connection today.  In a five minute walk up the High Street I found The Expectations pub, Copperfield antiques, the Dickens Café, the Two Cities Indian Restaurant, and most bizarrely the Little Dorrit ethnic clothes and gift shop.

I decided to forgo the delights of all these places, and went into the small cathedral instead.  A party of primary school children were sitting half way down the nave listening to a man dressed as a monk explain the difference between Romanesque and Gothic arches.  Rochester cathedral is a great place to do this as it rather resembles two halves of different cathedrals welded together in the middle.  The RTPI’s royal patron would have been really heartened to see the rapt attention a group of 10 year olds was giving to this primer in medieval architecture, and to be honest I was rather pleased myself.

As a teaching aid Rochester Cathedral may come into its own, but to steal a phrase loved by music journalists, it’s probably one for cathedral completists only.  Don’t come expecting Canterbury or York.  Still the view of the Cathedral and Castle standing spiritual and temporal guard over the Medway is worth the trip on its own, and if you’ve got an hour to spare on your journey to the Channel ports you could do a lot worse than stop off in Rochester.

As I left the town centre through the Inner Bailey of the castle, a Javelin train crawled over the Medway to Strood on its way to the high speed line at Ebbsfleet, and eventually into St Pancras.   It’s 34 minutes into St Pancras on the Javelin, compared to 38 minutes to London Bridge on the conventional fast train.  So not a lot of difference.  But then I started to think about where you could get to.  Change at Stratford and you can get the Jubilee line to Canary Wharf, still home to 90,000 jobs despite the banking crisis, and North Greenwich for the O2 – now officially the world’s most attended music venue.

Now eagle eyed readers will have noticed that these projects have something in common.  They all started life losing a shedload of money and costing the taxpayer millions.

In the early 1990’s Canary Wharf bankrupted its developers Olympia and York, who were then unable to part fund the Jubilee Line extension, leaving the government to pick up the tab – a cost to the public purse of £3.5 billion, instead of the originally expected £1.7 billion.  The O2 started life as the rather underwhelming Millenium Dome, which soaked up about £600m of lottery money, while HS1 itself had to be bailed out (and effectively nationalised) by the Government in an EU sanctioned bond guarantee of £3.7 billion when London and Commercial Railways went bust.  Ironically it is largely the lower than expected cross-channel passenger numbers, a killer for LCR, which provides the capacity to run the domestic services today.  Even coming right up to date the new Westfield shopping centre in Stratford is mired in controversy over £200 million in infrastructure subsidy from the Olympic Delivery Authority.

But if you were thinking of coming to live in Rochester today none of this would matter to you.  You’d be thinking that you could live in a charming historic town, sail on the Medway every weekend and have easy access to some of the most modern office, shopping and leisure complexes in the country.  Stockbroker belt eat your heart out – and at a fraction of the price.  The truth is that HS1 domestic has given the Thames Gateway and all the “Grands Projets” along it a proper public transport spine at last.

All of which is actually rather pertinent to the case for (or alternatively, against) HS2.  All these projects are what regeneration professionals love to call “game changers” – ideas so big that they would transform the whole area for ever.  The trouble with game changers is that it is impossible to predict what the new game will be.  When Canary Wharf was first built they almost had to give the office space away.   Twenty years later it was home to banking’s “masters of the universe”.  The Millennium Dome may have been a damp squib, but last week Rihanna was rocking the place to the rafters (or whatever the correct construction term is in this case…).  The predicted demand for rail travel to Paris and Brussels may not have materialised, but now Kent has rail services to match any in the country.

It’s a familiar but valid old saw that “the one thing we know about forecasts is that they will be wrong”.  What of course we never know is how or in which direction.  This is an inconvenient truth in the rough and tumble world of politics where any chink in the argument will be ruthlessly exploited by opponents.  However that should be where planners come in.  We need to argue, privately and publicly, for alternative outcomes to be assessed in as objective and rigorous a way as possible.

What if we have ten years of sluggish economic growth?  What if the Facebook generation travels far less for business?   What would we do with HS2 then?  Run some Not Quite So High Speed local services with a stop at Aylesbury or Oxford Parkway or wherever the line goes?  Build an extension to Heathrow earlier than planned to help to use up the capacity?    Plan a new town half way between London and Birmingham and build an extra station?  In a rational world we would look at these options.

Unfortunately political realities make this nigh on impossible, not least because they would be manna from heaven for conspiracy theorists.  However the Government must still ask not only “Do we believe the core business case?” but also “If the forecasts are not achieved, do we have worthwhile alternative options which could use at least some of the capacity, and recoup some of the cost to the public purse?”

The lesson from a massive regeneration project like Thames Gateway is that it matures over a timescale way beyond that of reliable forecasting.  Having alternative views of the long term future and a clear understanding of their implications is the mark of an intelligent decision maker.  That’s what we need in the case of HS2.