The musings of the Warrington sage

I have tried to operate a policy in my blogs of avoiding criticising individuals, except for politicians that is, who I regard as fair game. However I have been driven to breaking my own rule by statements that have been made on TV this year by Pete Waterman, “record producer and railway enthusiast”. Put simply, he has really got my goat!

Now I accept that much about Mr Waterman is to be admired. He is the archetypical “self-made” man. Aside from his involvement in the UK’s notorious 2010 Eurovision Song Contest entry (we came last, remember), he has had a very successful career in the music industry, for which he has been honoured with an OBE. He has also been a driving force in the preservation of our railway heritage. However, on the subject of HS2 he has to be judged by his words and here I find very little to admire.

My hackles were first raised by a programme in the “Inside Out” series on BBC1 TV that was broadcast on 21st February (which can be viewed here). This programme gave PW the chance to air his strong views in favour of HS2 and gave some people the opportunity “to try to change Pete’s mind”. The programme began with the following opening gambit from PW:

“What makes me mad, and it does make me mad, is that when anybody proposes anything everybody says it can’t be done – not in my back yard. Can’t do that, can’t do this. When are we going to look at what’s good for everybody and not just what’s just good for us?”

Yes good point PW, especially if the “everybody” that you refer to means the taxpayers who are going to have to find billions so that “us”, being the fat cat businessmen who will benefit from HS2, can save a few minutes of journey time.

PW also enthused “I can see it now; two trains passing at 250mph!”

I wonder PW if you would be quite so enthusiastic if you had to live with the noise of this “spectacle” day in and day out.

PW was then introduced to Lizzy Williams, who was so worried about the damage that HS2 would do to the environment that she walked the whole route in protest last year. Lizzy got little change out of PW:

“Of course I care about the countryside, but I don’t care about it enough that we can’t lose 138 miles of it.”

And when Lizzy suggested that less environmentally damaging alternatives should be considered:

“Stop looking at alternatives. Let’s get building. Have you got a spade with you? We’ll dig the bloody first sod now. Come on, let’s go and get our wellies on and we’ll dig it for them. We’ll have it out in a fortnight.”

So no sign of any rethink by PW on the environmental front, then. So who stepped up next to challenge PW? Well, the next contestants were Mark and Susan Willis, who stand to lose their home if HS2 goes ahead in its current form. We saw PW lurking in the front garden, looking like Shane Richie (or is that Shane Richie’s dad) in the “Daz Doorstep Challenge”:

“There are lots of views about HS2 but this is the reality; this house will be demolished. I’ve come to talk to the people who live here. Once HS2 comes through they will have to live somewhere else.”

Then PW rang the doorbell and, when the door was opened, he achieved the low point of the programme:

“Hello mate, how you doing? I’ve come to evict you already. No, only joking.”

That’s really funny PW. I bet Mr and Mrs Willis thought that you were a right wag, especially Mrs Willis, who is seen later in your visit fighting back the tears.

However, when he is told that nobody from officialdom has contacted the unfortunate couple about HS2 and that they learnt of their situation from the Internet, PW shows his more caring side:

“I can’t understand why nobody’s talked to anybody …

“… I suppose that nothing should shock me anymore, but that has shocked me, I’ve got to say …

“… Well there’s not a lot you can say, except that I’m shocked that people haven’t got the courtesy just to ring up and tell them what’s happening, because I think that’s basically what their complaint is, and you know what I feel sorry, really sorry, for them.”

Still never mind PW, you’ll get over it. Just think of the excitement of those two trains passing at 250mph!

Finally we see PW in discussion with Christian Wolmar, eminent transport analyst, who questions the passenger forecasts for HS2 and whether tickets will be affordable.

PW said about passenger forecasts “It’s a guess and to me this whole argument is irrelevant because it’s a guess. You can sit here and you can debate this against that, but at the end of the day for me it’s build it and let them come. If you don’t build it, we’ll never know.”

Damn right it’s a guess! What Christian Wolmar is saying is that it is a very poor guess. Surely PW, as a businessman, must appreciate that taking “blind leaps of faith” is a short road to bankruptcy. Would he invest his money on this basis?

So did Christian Woolmar manage to change PW’s mind? It doesn’t seem so:

“So Christian’s real worry is that not enough people will travel and that it will be too expensive. Well my belief is that you don’t know; nobody knows how many people are going to travel on it. My experience tells me that it’s always more than you think.”

I’m not sure what experience PW is referring to here. He is surely not talking about HS1, where actual passengers are about a third of the forecast numbers. Perhaps also he hasn’t heard about the high speed train running between Toledo, Cuenca and Albacete in Spain. This service, which only opened last December, has been axed due to lack of interest; only nine passengers per day were using it, on average.

And on fares, PW is hopeful:

“The worry about the fare I can understand, but I don’t believe that any government is brave enough to build something and then have it so expensive that we can’t travel on it, so I don’t have them [sic] concerns.”

Well PW, when the Government can’t cover costs from fares it resorts to subsidy, so we all pay. By the way Philip Hammond has recently said that rail subsidies are “unsustainable at current levels”, so HS2 may well find that it needs to charge an economic, i.e. high, fare.

There will be more about the wisdom of the Warrington sage in my next blog.

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