Q: When is a £75 billion, 90 mile rail link not a wasteful vanity project? A: When the UK government reclassifies it as a broadband project.
The UK's coalition government is very much on the defensive at the moment having painted itself into various sticky corners as it has sought to justify several peculiar strategies, initiatives and policy decisions.
Not the least of these is the much-vaunted decision to drive an horrendously expensive new high-speed railway line from the capital, London, through to Birmingham, Britain's vibrant but largely unlovely second city. The new line will complement the high-speed link we already have and which works perfectly adequately.
From the start, the government argued that the cost-benfeit analysis of savings in journey times of a maximum of 20 minutes between two cities (a mere ninety miles apart) justified the truly staggering original cost estimate of £33 billion for building the High Speed 2 (or HS2 for short) rail link. This has now risen to £75 billion and will continue to inflate until it explodes under its own puffery and internal contradictions.
The government seems determined to alienate many of its key supporters by continuing with its hubristic plan. The new line would punch and gouge it's way through some of the most pristine and picturesque English countryside that is home to many a Conservative party supporter and even though it would blight the lives of Liberal Dem city dwellers who would be seriously discommoded over a lengthy period as HS2 is built over, under, through and around their properties, the government persisted in its preposterous cost/benefit argument until the massed phalanxes of opposition groups comprehensively and serially demolished them.
Despite several government U-turns taken over the past couple of years and regardless of others on the way, the Cameron/Clegg axis says it is not for turning in the case of HS2, even though the issue will cost it a lot of votes at the next General Election which must be held before May 2015, at the latest. The government is therefore trumpeting any and all stories about HS2 that can be given even the most minimal positive spin. That's why the coalition is now claiming that HS2 will bring ultra high-speed broadband and a better supply of water in its noisy and despoiling wake.
Talk about clutching at straws whilst making things up on the hoof. Of course a brand new railway line with all its cuttings and tunnels will make it comparatively easy to deploy new ultrafast Internet access fibre but that wasn't mentioned when the plan was first mooted. It is only now, in the light of concerted and growing opposition to the project, that claims of additional benefits such as fast broadband and "faster" water are being dangled before us like pearls before swine.
The government's spinmeisters would actually have us believe that the sop of "better and faster delivery of water and electricity", is the silver lining to the massive black cloud that lours upon their House. How much more out if touch can they get?
There are canals and rail links across the UK as well as motorways. "Ultrafast" broadband infrastructure could be deployed via any of them. But no...
Simon Burns, the controversial Conservative MP for Chelmsford in Essex, has been Minister of State for Transport in the UK since September last year and burnishing (not to say bullshitting) the proposed new railway line falls within his bailiwick.
Mr Burns is in charge of the UK's railways strategy and the man who a matter of weeks ago recently gave the nod to swingeing rises in the cost of the UK's already massively over-priced rail tickets that have left commuters reeling.
It was recently revealed though that the Minister himself chooses not to mix with the hoi polloi who are his constituents, and whose fares he raised, and rather than taking the commuter train from Chelmsford to London (a 35 mile journey taking some 40 minutes or so) prefers to avail himself of a limousine and chauffeur (paid for, naturally, with money from the taxpayer) at the cost of £80,000 per annum.
When that little wheeze became public knowledge, Burns claimed he had to take the car so that he could "work on sensitive government documents" whilst in transit. The Cabinet Office responded that that there is no such stricture and that Mr, Burns could just as easily work on a train. The Minister was thereafter pictured, several days in succession, looking bleary-eyed and bemused queueing with the plebians at Chelmsford station to get on overcrowded trains to London. One day the poor chap actually couldn't get a seat and had to stand, just like dozens of other fare-paying passengers have to do every working day of their lives.
What a shame and how the nation laughed. After all, this is the self-same Simon Burns who proposed that members of Parliament should have "priority access" (i.e. be given the right to queue jump) in shops, restaurants, bars, at computer and at photocopying points and even lavatories ("Out of that water closet, serf! The movement of my bowels is much more important than the movement of yours") within the confines of the Palace of Westminster and take precedence over and above staff or visitors. By the way, these "visitors" are the British public, the people who actually own and pay for the place.
According to man of the people Burns, “HS2 is far more than a new railway line - it is a national infrastructure project that will bring places and people closer together while creating jobs and driving growth."
Burns continues, “Construction of HS2 gives us the perfect opportunity to explore how we can make it easier for even more people to benefit from ultra-fast broadband - and potentially deliver improvements to the provision of other utility services, including water and electricity.”
However, and as opponents of HS2 point out, between 70 per cent and 90 per cent of the towns and villages along the proposed route through Britain's leafy Home Counties and beautiful Midlands that HS2 will take already get what the government likes to call "superfast broadband access". They add that the colossal amount of money to be devoted to building the line would be much better spent on providing broadband infrastructure to the far too many parts of the UK that remain disconnected from the digital economy.
Mr Burns insists that the route is" being designed to allow a broadband superhighway to be built without any intrusion to the landscape". And if you believe that...
Meanwhile, a faceless department of Transport apparatchik claims that “HS2 will bring cities closer together, drive regeneration, tackle overcrowding and stimulate economic growth.”
What he doesn't say is that HS2 will be a premium service with even more ludicrously expensive tickets that those that already apply on the existing route. The UK already holds the dubious distinction of being one of the most expensive places on the planet as far as train fares are concerned - and we invented railways for God's sake!
The government claims that the "first stage of HS2" from Euston to Birmingham will open in 2026. It won't. And if it is a broadband project then I am a banana.
And let's finish on a good pub quiz question. What is the nickname of the aforementioned Minister of State for Transport ? Give up? OK then, I'll tell you. It is "Third Degree Burns" and it was conferred on him in recognition of the quality of the History degee he achieved at the age of 23.