President John F Kennedy, 51 years ago to the day – September 12, 1962 – made an historic speech in which he set out the plan to get a man on the moon by the end of that decade.
His stirring Rice Stadium speech described mankind’s great achievements and how they had accelerated to the point where he proposed the moon shot to be based, in part, on technology which had yet to be invented or developed.
He famously said: “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
History was made and it was a little over seven years when Neil Armstrong took ‘one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’ in The Sea of Tranquility.
But fast forward about 40 years and we saw Prime Minister Gordon Brown, staring at election defeat, standing on the platform at St Pancras Rail Station ready to kick start the UK’s 21st century transport revolution .
Who can forget his immortal words?
“I know some people who think this is not the time to be investing in infrastructure but I believe it is essential to do so and we will be investing £20 billion in our rail infrastructure in the next few years,” he told the crowds in a speech which would set the tone for HS2 delivery.
Whereas JFK set NASA the challenge of getting a man on the moon within eight years, Brown, his transport minister Lord Andrew Adonis set Britain the challenge of getting a rail line between London and Birmingham in about 16 years, and maybe up to Manchester or Leeds in 23 years.
At the same time, despite a recession during which time construction costs and real wages have dwindled, the cost of HS2 has soared to about £42 billion at the last count.
The Library of Birmingham, managed to shave £4-£5 million off its budget in just five years as a result of the economic downtown so why is this train line suddenly costing so much more?
And far from whipping the public into a frenzy of national pride as the likes of Concorde or the Olympics managed, HS2 is beginning to bore people, if not make them downright hostile.
Not even the appointment of the country’s most famous train-spotter Pete Waterman as an ambassador for the project has helped.
This week we had Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee questioning the increase in cost and the lowering of benefits. Chairwoman Margaret Hodge said the money would be better spent on the existing rail network.
This comes after the likes of former Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling and the National Audit Office wondering if it is all worth it.
Of course these criticisms are leapt on by the pro-HS2 lobby – including whoever happens to be Transport Secretary and their Shadow at the current time, along with the likes of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and Industry, for who 2026 can’t come soon enough.
And that is the problem, the time scale is just too far away.
And much of the growing budget is probably tied up in the time scale; the lawyers who will see the route examined in graphic detail at a series of drawn-out public inquiries, the politicians who will get expensive tunnels needlessly built to avoid upsetting constituents and the consultants who will see those taxpayer funded cheques rolling in until their retirement some time around the mid-2020s.
We also have the baffling circus of austerity-hit taxpayer-funded local authorities taking legal action against an austerity-hit taxpayer-funded Government.
As someone who thinks technological progress is generally a good thing, enjoys a good piece of civil engineering and who still gets that boyhood rush of excitement when boarding a train, it is disturbing that even I wonder if it is all worth it.
So in a bid a to recapture the interest and wonder of a public who may be generally supportive I would suggest the Transport Secretary simply cut the budget in half, legislate to cut short or fast track any legal or planning objections, and open up the floor to anyone who can get this High Speed rail line up and running in five years – or by the end of the decade at the most.
If he can do with a fraction of the inspirational fervour that Kennedy managed in 1962 it might just work.
Labour’s dominance of the Birmingham City Council Chamber, it has 77 members out of 120, has resulted in the party being able to select from its own ranks the Lord Mayor for a second year running.
This is the result of a complex formula that only a couple of accountants and Labour leader Sir Albert Bore can fully understand (I may have made that bit up).
The current incumbent, former Labour chief whip Mike Leddy has only been wearing the chain of office for a few months and already the group are speculating over who will succeed him next spring.
Now word is reaching me that the favoured candidate could be Bordesley Green backbencher Shafique Shah. He was disappointed to miss out on a Cabinet post last year and turned down a consolation prize of chairman of the unfashionable audit committee.
I am informed that he considered challenging Sir Albert Bore and deputy Ian Ward for the leadership earlier this year.
He is thought to have some support in the group so what better way for Sir Albert to head off a potential challenge next year by promoting Coun Shah as the next Lord Mayor?