Facing nine million more people in 22 years, we can’t just say ‘upgrade the existing railway and drive on the hard shoulder’, says George Muir.

The problem, for me, is that almost everything the objectors to HS2 say is true: the growth figures are suspect; you could perfectly well lengthen the Penolinos to 12-car; HS2 won’t transform the North; and it all started as a Cameronian vanity monument. Yet this doesn’t damn the project.

The real choice we are presented with – and it is one common enough in business – is between a programme of incremental, across the board improvements on the one hand or a game changing investment in something new and risky on the other. Usually the former is the right way to go, but sometimes you have to grit your teeth, swallow your doubts, and do the latter.

So, are we at a stage now, in the grand sweep of our island story, when incremental, across the board is the best strategy or do we grit our teeth and sign up to HS2?

England, HS2 mainly effects England, has seen a huge growth in its population, in its economy and in its transport infrastructure since the war. The scale of change is hard to get your mind round. In 1950, when I was a toddler, the population of England was 41 million; it is now 52 million, an increase of 27%. The economy is vastly bigger, four times larger; and there has been a massive increase in travel. It is true that since 1992 the growth in travel has not kept pace with economic growth but it has still increased; in fact by 23% in that period, which is 1.3% per annum, or about half the rate of economic growth. Long distance travel has grown more slowly, but it has still grown, by about 10% over the period.

Going along with this, allowing it to happen, have been very large investments in transport infrastructure, first in motorways and then in trains. It is easy to forget the scale of what has been done.

The Preston Bypass in 1958 triggered motorway mania; and the following decade saw an enormous programme of 1,000 miles of new motorway. At the same time, Beeching was hacking back the limbs of the Edwardian railway. More motorways were built in the 70s, and some in the 80s when the M25 was completed, and one or two thereafter. The M40 was finished in 1991, the M60 Manchester Outer Ring Road in 2000 and the M6 Toll in 2003. But since then, nothing, absolutely nothing and there is no intention of building any more.

The horror of the Westway in London, opened in 1970, and its trashing of the living space along its route demonstrated the limitations of motorways as solutions for urban traffic. And the bitter, effective public protest over Twyford Down, the then missing section of the M3, is a warning to anyone who might wish to build another motorway across the Pennines – however much it is needed.

As motorway building wound down, rail stayed out of fashion but the Channel Tunnel was built, as were seven light rail systems around the country and the Jubilee Line Extension.

Since 2000, the investment focus turned to rail in a big way, with massive, absolutely massive investments: HS1, the WCML upgrade, the East London Line, Thameslink, Manchester Metrolink Phase 3, now Crossrail, and most probably the Northern Hub starting soon. As anyone will point out, much of this has been in and around London. Well, yes, but the North did well out of the motorway programme.

But the main point is this. Going along with the growth in population and the economy were very large investments in new transport infrastructure. And this is not going to stop; neither the population growth nor the economic growth, nor the need for new transport infrastructure.

The population of England, now 52 million, is forecast to be 61 million in 2033, just 22 years from now. Whether this is from immigration or native born English men and women doing their stuff doesn’t matter, it is what is likely to happen, and that figure is not far away. It is a 17% increase from where we are now. England is already crowded, far more so than Germany or France, and in 22 years’ time will be as crowded as Holland; we will have nine million more people, the population of London or four Manchesters, again. Think about it!

Incidentally and just to depress you further, it is projected to keep growing: to 68 million by 2056 and 82 million by 2108. Maybe something will slow this down, but if not, that is 30 million more people in England within a lifetime.

And the economy will keep growing too.

Put these things together, population growth and economic growth and you can see the inevitable requirement for more transport infrastructure – on a very large scale.

There are some people, Simon Wolfson, chief executive of Next, for example, who say, and they are right so far as it goes, that it would be better to spend the money on improving roads. Road investment has a better benefit-cost ratio and improves the daily lives of more people.

The Midlands and North really do need more trunk roads and motorways, but the practical difficulties are very severe and the political will is not there, cf. Westway and Twyford Down. Besides, there is the cost, widening even part of the M6 would be a £3bn project, let alone building new roads round or across or between Birmingham, Manchester or Leeds.

The difficulty of expanding the road network pushes you, inevitably, into what looks like a disproportionate investment in rail. If you could build another M1, M6, M42 or M62, you would do it. But without Los Angeles style spaghetti junctions and motorways on stilts like the Westway, it can’t be done.

The other, more common argument is that the further lengthening of the Pendolinos and the removing of pinch points would provide the necessary rail capacity on the WCML, and the money saved should be spent on upgrading the rest of the classic rail network and expanding light rail. This, with a continuing freeze on new trunk roads, amounts to Plan B, the incremental plan. And Plan B, I do not think, is enough.

We cannot, facing nine million more people in the next 22 years, plus economic growth, just say “incremental upgrading of the existing railway and drive on the hard shoulder”. It won’t wash.

First, we need to and I think we will build HS2; second, we need also to, and I think we will – contrary to what the HS2 objectors say – continue to invest in the classic network and in light rail schemes, notwithstanding the need to cut government debt; and, third, we will invest, but for practical reasons to a limited extent, in some expansion of the trunk road network, though I don’t know how. And we may also see lorry and road user charging – it seems inevitable at some point.

In the next issue I plan to write about the Y scheme for HS2, is it the right scheme, and will it benefit the North?

This story appeared in the latest issue of Passenger Transport. Click here to subscribe.