30th January 2009 Speeches
My speech for the Chancellor’s Lecture at the University of Kent at Canterbury
‘Canterbury Cathedral has many claims to fame and infamy. But it is likely that its most consequential secular event – after Thomas Becket’s unfortunate demise in the north-east transept – took place 23 years ago next month. I refer to the signing of the Treaty of Canterbury by Margaret Thatcher and Francois Mitterrand; the treaty which enabled the Channel Tunnel to be built.
To paraphrase Mao when asked about the long-term effect of the French Revolution, it is too soon to say what will be the long-term consequences of the Channel Tunnel. Indeed, historians still argue about the Murder in the Cathedral and what it meant for the Reformation four centuries later. But for those of us seeking to fashion a better future with the imperfect aid of past experience, it is never too soon to study the past for inspiration. In respect of the Channel Tunnel and the wider London to Paris high-speed rail project, there is nowhere better to do so than here in Canterbury at the University of Kent.
The time is also propitious, for the key transport policy issue of the next year is whether, and how, to proceed with a new North-South high speed rail line, following the Government’s decision on 15 th January to establish a company, High Speed Two, to propose such a line. This is not only a transport question. It has fundamental social, political and economic implications for the country at large, and decisions need to be based on our best assessment of past experience. So here are some of my reflections on the London to Paris high-speed line.
The line from London to Paris, as it has come to life over the last quarter of a century, consists of four inter-related projects: first, the 207 mile high-speed line from Paris to Calais, which opened in 1993; second, the Channel Tunnel, which opened a year later in 1994; third, the 68 mile Channel Tunnel Rail Link which opened in two stages, Folkestone to Fawkham near Gravesend in 2003 and then on to London in November 2007; and last but certainly not least, the renovation and enlargement of Gilbert Scott’s neo-Gothic masterpiece of St Pancras as the terminus for what is now called High Speed One.
Let me take these four distinct projects in turn, seeking to draw lessons in each case.
Paris to Calais
It is significant and symbolic that the first part of the London to Paris project to open was the French high-speed line from Paris to Calais.
For the French, the TGV is not just a train but a vision of the future and a means to bring it about. It is a force for national integration and regeneration and a source of intense national pride, as much as a faster and more efficient means of transport providing additional inter-city rail capacity. This higher purpose was there from the start. After the initial success of the Paris to Lyon line, which in 1981 cut the journey time for the 264 miles to under two hours, SNCF as early as 1983 published a strategic plan for four further lines to be built by 2000 – extending the first line from Lyon to Marseilles in the south, and new lines from Paris to Lille in the north, Alsace in the east and Le Mans going west. All four of the planned lines are now in operation as the creation of a national TGV network became a cross-party priority for successive French governments. The current French Prime Minister, Francois Fillon, recently described the TGV as one of the two infrastructural transformations of modern France; the other being energy independence through the French nuclear programme.
So from the outset of the London to Paris project, a Paris to Calais TGV was part of the wider French high-speed programme. A crucial aspect was the decision to route the line via Lille, not the most direct route from Paris to Calais, both to help regenerate – with some success – one of France’s more depressed industrial cities and also to provide a rail interchange – also successfully, over time – for other north European cities, starting with the high-speed line from Lille to Brussels which opened in 1997. The Brussels-Amsterdam high-speed line, about to open, will give a three hour through service from Paris to
All this was in stark contrast to Britain, where the London to Paris project was never part of a wider national plan. The very name given to our proposed new line to the tunnel – the “Channel Tunnel Rail Link” – says it all.
Indeed, but for the French, even the CTRL would probably still not be built. We all recall President Mitterrand’s celebrated remarks on opening the Paris to Calais TGV: “Passengers will race at a great pace across the plains of Northern France, rush through the Tunnel on a fast track, and then be able to daydream at very low speed, admiring the English countryside.” Even for Margaret Thatcher, with her notorious antipathy to the railways (on which she virtually never travelled as Prime Minister), the Gallic insult must have rankled. Nicholas Faith, in his excellent history of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, says that when its potential costs to the taxpayer became apparent, “The Treasury would like to have abandoned the scheme, as would the policy unit in No 10 Downing Street. The project was kept alive largely because of fear over the reaction of the French – and of the shareholders in Eurotunnel.”
This odd-couple combination of French etatism and City shareholders propelled the CTRL forward, rather than a bold conception of high-speed rail in Whitehall or Westminster during the 1980s and 1990s.
French etatism comes at a price, and a high one measured by the annual accounts of SNCF over the past 30 years. However, reflecting on the TGV, three lessons stand out for me.
First, the French don’t regret their decision to embrace high-speed rail. On the contrary, they have become bolder over time. More than 400 TGV train sets now run over 1,100 miles of new high speed line, with three new lines under construction and up to six more planned. This confidence is true also of Japan and the other countries which have followed France and Japan in the international high-speed rail revolution. Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, China, Taiwan, and Korea have all followed suit. In all, 3,600 miles of high-speed line are in operation in Europe, a further 2,000 under construction and 5,300 planned. But only 68 of them are in Britain. Even the United States, where inter-city passenger trains became practically extinct in the post-war decades, now looks set to build its first high-speed line, between San Francisco and Los Angeles, a distance just short of London to Glasgow and Edinburgh.
As for their impact, high-speed lines have generally led to dramatic increases in rail traffic; and as, in Europe, successive lines develop into national and cross-border networks, the network effects become larger still.
It is time we in Britain treated seriously this international evidence and experience, rather than continuing to proclaim the virtues of English exceptionalism. The renaming of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link “High Speed One” is a symbolic start. The next step is our decision to set up the new company, deliberately called High Speed Two, both to plan for a north-south high-speed line and to consider the wider national and European network connections which should be promoted by such a line.
My second reflection is that, although there is a high price involved in building high-speed lines, there is also a high price involved in not building them where additional rail capacity is required anyway. This high price is measured not only in lost economic and social benefit but also in the direct cost of upgrading existing congested rail lines, which is very large indeed.
This second lesson is now much more apparent to us than it was before HS1 because we now have the direct experience of the ten year plus project to upgrade the West Coast Main Line, just painfully completed. This upgrade was essential to achieve many of the objectives sought in the TGV programme: additional rail capacity on a principal inter-city route, enabling more frequent and much faster and more reliable trains. To provide this on the WCML – Britain’s principal inter-city rail artery, which also has heavy commuter and goods traffic – an essentially patch-and-mend approach was adopted, to secure a transformation in capacity and service quality for much less than the cost of building an entirely new line. Many of these benefits have indeed been secured: thrice hourly trains now run from London to Birmingham and Manchester with journey times faster than ever before. Once the new timetable is fully in place passengers will never have had a better service.
However, it has not been an easy journey. The original mid-1990s spec for the WCML project was for a £4 bn upgrade to provide not only greater capacity but also 140 mph running and state-of-the-art signalling as on High Speed One. Ten years later? The cost turned out at £8.8bn for what in the jargon is called a “de-scoped” project for 125 mph running not 140 mph, with the new signalling postponed. Of that £8.8bn, more than £500m has gone on the direct compensation cost of the disruption to passengers and freight train services year after year.
For the future, we need to assess the relative merits, including disruption saved, of building new lines rather than highly disruptive and expensive major upgrades of existing lines. In the past decade alone rail passenger numbers have increased by 50 per cent, rail freight by 40 per cent, and the government projection is for a doubling of passenger demand by 2030. How far, on congested lines, growth is met by incremental upgrades, and how far by new lines, is a critical issue which will determine the development of new commuter as well as high-speed lines. If the cost of disruption is fully taken into account, I suspect it is by no means clear that ostensibly lower priced upgrades are always better value than new high-speed lines.
My third reflection on the TGV experience is its success in displacing air traffic. In the last five years, since the speeding up of the Eurostar service with the completion of HS1, Eurostar’s share of the London-Paris air-rail market has risen from 60 per cent to 76 per cent, and from 44 per cent to 72 per cent of the London-Brussels market. So concerned is Air France to keep its position in the short haul market to London that it is publicly contemplating a new service – wait for it, a London-Paris high-speed train service to compete with Eurostar. Once the Brussels-Amsterdam high-speed line is open, direct London to Amsterdam services might be possible; and a high-speed line all the way to Scotland could have a significant impact on the 64 per cent of the traffic which currently goes by air.
The rule of thumb is that a below three hour journey time is the tipping point between rail and air, which ought to be possible high speed London to Scotland. These possibilities don’t affect the current proposal for Heathrow expansion, which is needed anyway because of the growth of longer-distance traffic; but they could affect longer term aviation demand, and, separately, passenger access to Heathrow by rail could be transformed if there were an airport hub interchange on a new north-south high-speed line, an option we have asked High Speed Two to explore.
The Channel Tunnel
So much for the TGV and its lessons. Having now got from Paris to Calais on the TGV, we enter the 31 mile long Channel Tunnel.
I have three observations on the history of the tunnel. First, it took us a century and a quarter to get over our deep-seated Euroscepticism and dig the thing. The Victorians didn’t call it Euroscepticism; they called it “splendid isolation”, but it amounted to the same thing. But secondly, once Lady Thatcher – of all people, such are the ironies of politics – decided the time had come to start digging, the treaty to build the tunnel was negotiated in barely 18 months, and the entire tunnel was completed in just eight years after that.
My third comment, on the tunnel’s usage, is that the pre-construction projections on usage were far too over-optimistic in terms of both volumes and revenues. The first generation of shareholders did badly thereby, sharing the fate of so many Victorian railway promoters, and I note at least one economic cost-benefit analysis arguing that the British economy would be better-off if the tunnel had never been built. Indeed there is also a paper published by University of Kent researchers in 2004 which is pretty negative about the tunnel’s impact on the economy and employment in Kent. But if we could re-run the past, there wouldn’t be many of us – not least here in Kent – seriously thinking we would be better-off without the tunnel for the 21 st century.
Before moving on, I can’t resist a few choice historical vignettes.
The first credible project for building a Channel Tunnel came in 1875, when an Act of Parliament authorised the Anglo French Channel Tunnel Company to start trials. Several shafts were sunk at Sangatte in France and at sites between Dover and Folkestone. It was then abandoned. This fiasco was not a result of any technical or engineering impossibility encountered, but the result of a political outcry that the nation was in peril. The very model of the Victorian imperialist general, Sir Garnet Wolseley, led the charge. “The tunnel might be calamitous for England,” he declared. “No matter what fortifications and defences are built, there would always be the peril of some continental army seizing the tunnel exit by surprise.”
That mentality put paid to the Channel Tunnel for the best part of a century. However, the historian in me speculates on what might in fact have happened to national – and European – security in the 20th century had the tunnel in fact been built before 1914. In 1914, with a tunnel, the British Expeditionary Force would have got to France and Belgium quicker, in larger numbers and better equipped, which might have tilted the strategic balance decisively in the early weeks and months of the war. The German general, von Moltke, said as much beforehand: if a tunnel were built, it would “prove fatal to Germany in the case of a conflict”, a view shared by Marshal Foch in retrospect who claimed that with a tunnel “the carnage of the war would have been over in half the time.” Early victory in the 1914 war might have avoided the Second World War entirely, not to mention fascism and communism; but had the second war still happened – and, yes, the “what ifs” are now getting a bit out of control – then yet again the tunnel might have got our army and equipment to France faster and with greater support, and perhaps back again too in better order if a Dunkirk-style evacuation had still been necessary. It is certainly hard to see how it could have made things worse.
However, moving quickly back from conjecture to reality, the amazing thing is that the spirit of Sir Garnet Wolsley was still alive and well as late as the 1970s, and an influence on the Callaghan Labour Government’s decision to cancel that decade’s plan for the Channel Tunnel. Barbara Castle confided to her diary her “earthy feeling that an island is an island and should not be violated.” Bernard Donoughue, Jim Callaghan’s director of policy at No.10, penned this wonderful passage in his recently published diaries. The date is 12th July 1977; the character Peter Shore, Secretary of State for the Environment:
“When I mentioned the Channel Tunnel, Shore went slightly mad. He rose to his feet, waving his arms, saying this was the worst thing that could ever happen to Britain. How old was I? Did I not remember 1940? We would be invaded by Germans coming through the tunnel. We must never give up our island status, etc. etc.”
It was Lady Thatcher, in one of her remarkable pro-European acts of the mid-1980s, who put an end to this nonsense. Sir Nicholas Henderson, the first chairman of Eurotunnel and a former British ambassador to both France and Germany, said it was because she wanted to make a positive move towards our European partners after the years of wrangling over the EU budget; it was also part of her commitment to building a genuine European free trade area, as seen also in her support for the Single European Act and the 1992 single market programme. As I noted earlier, the negotiation of the Treaty of Canterbury took just 18 months. Let me therefore submit to you that Lady Thatcher has been much maligned as an anti-European. The Channel Tunnel ought to be credited as one of her principal historical legacies, ending more than a century of dithering and arguably contributing more than any other single institution besides the European Union to our European destiny. She may or may not welcome that reappraisal.
As for the nation in peril, I would simply note that in its short life the tunnel has already twice been closed or semi-closed for long periods by lorry fires. It is at the moment. So think what Sir Garnet Wolseley, and later the SAS, could have done given half a chance and half an hour.
We now emerge from the Channel Tunnel and onto High Speed One, admiring all too briefly the Kent countryside at 180 mph before reaching the less verdant Thames Gateway, possibly stopping at Ebbsfleet, descending into the final long tunnel underneath Hackney and Islington, and surfacing just before arrival in the magnificent railway cathedral of St Pancras.
It is important to understand that High Speed One always had a dual purpose: in original conception it was – for England at the time – an uncharacteristically visionary project to get from London to Paris in just over two hours. But more prosaically, it also became a congestion relief and service upgrading project for trains from East Kent to London, and this aspect loomed steadily larger as the financing of the international services became increasingly problematic. HS1 would offer an opportunity to tackle the acute shortage of capacity on the Kent commuter lines into London, also opening up key network bottlenecks such as London Bridge, and allowing for other commuter service expansion projects such as the north-south Thameslink line through central London.
This second – domestic capacity enhancement – dimension was particularly attractive because of the very poor rail infrastructure bequeathed by the unproductive cut-throat Victorian competition between the South Eastern and the London, Chatham and Dover railway companies, which left East Kent with one of one of the worst built railway networks in the country, the 102 minute journey time from London to Canterbury being a prime case in point.
As it turns out, the second fiddle on HS1 looks set to replace the lead violin. The traffic set to be carried from this year on the 140 mph Javelin trains from St Pancras, via High Speed One and then onto the Chatham to Canterbury, and Ashford to Folkestone lines, will be significantly greater than the international Eurostar business. With the standard journey time from London to Ashford cut from 83 minutes to 37, to Folkestone from 98 minutes to 63, and to Canterbury from 102 minutes to 62, Southeastern plans from this December to run up to eight commuter trains an hour to and from St Pancras in the peak.
This raises two immediate points. First, similar capacity pressures to East Kent, requiring network solutions, apply – or will apply as traffic increases – in respect of other strategic rail corridors. The government’s High Speed Two document published this month highlights the rail corridor from London to the West Midlands. But I am also struck by the limitations imposed by poor network conditions elsewhere in terms for example of extraordinarily slow journey times between major conurbations. Consider Manchester, Bradford and Leeds, three of the biggest population and business centres in the country. Manchester and Leeds are separated by only 43 Trans-Pennine rail miles, but the rail journey time is 55 minutes – an average speed as slow as London to Canterbury, which is quite an achievement.
The second point to make is that High Speed One works as well as any other high speed line in the world. Average infrastructure delay is about six seconds per train, which is performance on a par with Japanese bullet trains. It is simply not the case that this country can’t manage world class infrastructure to world class standards. HS1 was also ultimately built to time and within budget, with substantial private funding – although both the time and the budget were adjusted upwards, and the effective share of private finance downwards, several times before the final restructuring of London and Continental Railways in 2002. The line is also one of the – if not the – most expensive high-speed railway built in the world per mile, only partly because of the long tunnel on the approach to London. So, having not built a single major overground railway in the entire 20 th century, we have now done it successfully in the 21 st century, and we are well placed to do it a second time, but we must demand greater efficiency and cost control as our engineers and project managers master the art.
When it comes to the planning of High Speed One, there are equally fundamental lessons to be learned. In the warm after-glow of the success of HS1 much of the early history has faded, so it is necessary to recall that HS1 almost didn’t happen, not only because of the cost, but also because the original route planning and public consultation process was a total disaster. In 1988 British Rail published an initial plan with options for four routes within corridors up to six miles wide through mid Kent and south London, directly threatening 5,000 homes and causing about as much planning blight and public alarm as could possibly be conceived even had the object been to win the Poll Tax award for universal public hatred. It was only the vision and constructive engagement of the engineering consultancy Arup, Kent County Council and others who came together to propose a single, much less destructive eastern route via Thames Gateway, and the decisiveness of Michael Heseltine in getting John Major’s government to change tack, which saved the day.
After the change to the easterly route, overnight the NIMBYs were replaced by Thames Gateway PIMBYs – “please in my back yard” – demonstrating that it is possible to build new lines through densely populated and scenic areas in England, provided the planning and consultation are sensitive. High Speed Two will be alive to these lessons, mindful of the general rule that with new rail lines everyone wants the stations but no-one wants the track, and mindful also of the extraordinary statistic that ultimately High Speed One required the demolition of precisely 12 houses. Although it also had something to do with 15 miles of tunnel.
Critical to the decision to switch from a heart-of-Kent route to an easterly route was the argument that it would transform the regeneration potential of the Thames Gateway, as in the French decision to route the Paris-Calais line via Lille.
It was this regeneration aspect that particularly appealed to Michael Heseltine, who saw HS1 as the opportunity to do for the larger Thames Gateway what he had already done for Docklands: a vision of public infrastructure investment leading to huge private investment, as happened in Docklands in the wake of the Jubilee Line, the Docklands Light Railway, City Airport, the Limehouse Link and other roads, plus the new Dartford Bridge, the population of the London Docklands Development Corporation zone doubling during the 17 years of its life.
In his biography of Michael Heseltine, Michael Crick records one civil servant saying of the key inter-ministerial meeting in June 1991 which decided on the new rail route through Thames Gateway: “Heseltine just ran the whole meeting and ran roughshod over Rifkind [who was in fact Transport Secretary at the time]; he had this mania over the East Thames Corridor and regeneration.” Crick describes the use of the word “mania” in this context as “a pure Sir Humphrey attitude towards any show of enthusiasm by a minister.” I on the contrary am a great fan of the civil service and agree with Nicholas Faith who argues that Heseltine’s success in driving his regeneration agenda forwards, including High Speed One, is “proof that the [civil service] are only too happy to follow any minister …. who knows their own mind and possesses definite, and realistic, ideas they want to implement.” In the words of another account, written by one of Heseltine’s civil servants when he left the Department of the Environment for the first time in 1983, he “inspired his civil servants to follow him towards the sunlit uplands, which however for some were obscured by the smoke and heat of battle.”
What of the cost of HS1? A recent London and Continental Railways report on the economic impact of HS1 estimates the capital costs of building the line and the operating costs from providing extra services at £7.3 bn, set against a positive benefit in terms of reduced journey times, increased revenue and congestion relief which almost offsets the whole project cost. It also predicts many billions in future regeneration benefits, not only in the Thames Gateway and East Kent but also around St Pancras and Kings Cross. The “known unknown”, of direct relevance to future high-speed rail planning, particularly from London to the Midlands and the north and within the Midlands and the north, is how far this regeneration expectation comes to be realised. I would be interested in your views on the likely impact on Canterbury and the East Kent coastal towns. Richard Brown, the chief executive of Eurostar, in a thought provoking recent lecture on the case for High Speed Two, argues that a north-south high speed line would “diminish [the] trend towards concentration [of economic activity in London] by improving access to jobs over a much wider area”. I instinctively agree with him, but the proposition needs to be tested further.
A further lesson of HS1 is that, for a new high-speed line serving a key strategic travel artery, there are likely to be “unknown unknowns” in terms of future benefit and payback. The Olympics is a stark and immediate case in point, Tessa Jowell tells me that High Speed One was a “decisive factor” in the London 2012 bid. The International Olympic Committee’s team which came to inspect London’s infrastructure was taken in a fleet of landrovers through the HS1 tunnel from St Pancras to Stratford, to demonstrate the quality of the public transport infrastructure being put in place to link Stratford with central London and with the Continent. Tessa Jowell adds: “HS1 and the Olympics will feed each other, and not just during the games itself. The Olympics are set to create some 50,000 jobs in the Lower Lea Valley after the Games. HS1 makes these jobs accessible and will attract business to the area.” And back to history: Japan’s bullet trains were made famous by the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. It could be the same for the Javelins in 2012.
Similarly, the stunning redevelopment of St Pancras would not have taken place without High Speed 1. The Gilbert Scott and Barlow masterpiece of St Pancras marked the zenith of Victorian railway confidence in the 1870s. Its proposed demolition marked the nadir of British Rail in the 1960s. And its brilliant restoration symbolises the railway renaissance of this first decade of the 21 st century.
St Pancras takes us back to those Victorian engineers and entrepreneurs who built the world’s first railways, an infrastructure which is still a good part of the backbone of the nation today. It leads me to one final reflection. High Speed One took twenty years to plan and build. By comparison, the 22 years after the opening of the Liverpool to Manchester Railway in 1830 saw the construction of all the main inter-city lines in England.
HS1 shows that we are capable of the broad vision of the often unquantifiable economic, social and environmental benefits which can come from high-speed rail. But my goodness, haven’t we been hesitant and slow. And wouldn’t it be a good idea if, in all kinds of ways, we could speed up a bit in the future.