HS2 phase 2 is the high-speed train line that will connect Manchester and Leeds to Birmingham and on to London. Promoted as an attempt to bring ‘the UK’s Victorian railway infrastructure dramatically into the 21st Century,’ the Government expects to spend billions in a plan set to transform North-South transport infrastructure, encourage business, boost employment and relieve the strain on the creaking network. For every pound spent on HS2, there would be a £4 benefit compared to conventional lines, the Secretary of State told Parliament. Whether HS2 will be a success is not for us to say: at the Manchester Historian we prefer to take the long view.
This is the most significant, indeed the only, major domestic railway infrastructure project for fifty years. The closures of Beeching Cuts shut down 33% of railway route miles in the 1960s and, since the 19th Century, there has been very little railway building.
The ‘Golden Age’ of British Railways steams straight through the Victorian period when ‘Railway Mania’ transformed the physical, legal and corporate landscape of Britain. This new infrastructure profoundly challenged the status quo in many different spheres. Enabling goods to be transported more cheaply and faster, it also gave opportunities for the less privileged to travel for work and leisure.
It brought crucial changes to how businesses worked and companies’ legal status. Railway companies were the first to have their own legal identity by incorporation. Their limited liability laws also meant they were among the first businesses to attract ‘normal’ middle-class investors. Meaning individuals only risked their own, original sum of money rather than everything they owned, so lots of people chose to invest small amounts in railway companies. These fundamental changes have a legacy in modern businesses and capitalisation.
Both then and now railway schemes receive criticism. As with any infrastructure project, HS2 has stirred up a certain amount of NIMBYism from people who support the general idea of high-speed rail but don’t want it hurtling past their front door. This occurred in the 19th Century. However, significantly, many civic leaders in towns up and down the country recognised the huge benefit that being connected to the railway network would bring to their communities. Petitions to Parliament and the Board of Trade showed great competition between towns to ensure that they weren’t left behind by progress.
Victorian railway building provides a good example of how HS2 can bring innovation and transformation. However, the main difference is that for Victorians railways were the future; for us they represent the past. Although many projects were spectacularly ill-judged, monumentally over-budget and downright dangerous they also were the vanguard of progress. In the digital era where relatives can ‘face-time’ each other on their phones and meetings can be conducted over the internet, building railways seems like a throwback. Of course, the other monumental difference between then and now is that HS2 is a government project, funded by the taxpayer and not a private endeavour, funded by private investment.