The government has given the go ahead to a new high speed rail line from London to Birmingham: HS2.
It's a hugely symbolic act. It marks a new era for the country's railways. At last, Britain won't be the poor relation to its continental cousins, who have been building high speed lines for the past 30 years. We'll have our first new domestic intercity railway since 1899, the year Great Central trains started running from the north to London Marylebone.
But HS2 has been hugely controversial, especially in the Chilterns. As I blogged when Labour announced the original HS2 plan, our own village, Chalfont St Giles, is on the route. As you'd expect, few people here are in favour of a railway that won't benefit us (there won't be any local stations) but whose construction will blight the area for many years. The anti HS2 campaign has been witty and well organised - with posters on the road to Chequers asking prime minister David Cameron if he's on the right track. Local MP Cheryl Gillan has supposedly threatened to resign as Wales Secretary if the government gave the green light. We'll see if she's still in the Cabinet at the end of the week...
I share the many of the misgivings of the protesters. I find it hard to justify the massive price when public spending is a being slashed to cut the deficit. (It seems a strange priority to splash out on an expensive rail line when youth clubs for deprived inner city teenagers are being closed.) If we're going to invest in rail, wouldn't it be better to improve existing rail lines?
But that kind of make do and mend approach isn't good enough. Britain's intercity rail network was born just before Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837. It was the wonder of the world. Nearly two centuries later, the world wonders why Britain is so reluctant to build a new railway. HS2 opponents say we should just modernise the west coast mainline. That line was created from a series of 19th century railways. It has been 'modernised' twice in the last fifty years. It's still in essence a Victorian railway. Its London terminus, Euston, is a soulless place. I pity anyone who has any time to kill there. The same is true at Reading, Cardiff Central, Bristol Parkway and countless stations across the country.
So HS2 is the right thing to do. It will transform the experience of train travel in Britain. Our village will suffer during the long construction years, but I'll be able to show Owen the building of our first new domestic railway since his great grandmother was a child in the 1890s. (I never thought I'd have the chance to emulate SWA Newton, who photographed the birth of the Great Central in Buckinghamshire and beyond.)
PS: Other mainlines were build in Britain after the Great Central, notably the Great Western's 'cut-off' lines before the Great War, but none was a complete inter city line.