18th February 2011 Articles
Labour’s policy review needs to reaffirm its commitment to high-speed rail, ensuring a green alternative to more roads and flights
Labour’s plan for high-speed rail, which I unveiled last March, is a key part of our strategy for growth, regional development and sustainable mobility. It is vital Labour’s forthcoming policy review reaffirms our commitment to this flagship policy, putting Britain on a par with the rest of western Europe where, country by country, interconnected high-speed networks are under construction.
Visualise a future where Birmingham and London are barely half an hour apart – and Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield are just an hour and a quarter from the capital, with radically faster and more reliable train services between the major cities of the Midlands and the north. Where London to Glasgow and Edinburgh takes only three and a half hours by train, largely eradicating the domestic aviation which dominates these routes because of the slow rail journey times. And where all London-bound high-speed trains connect directly into the new £16 billion Crossrail line before they get to central London, giving an added journey time of only 10 minutes to Heathrow and the West End, 15 minutes to the City and 20 minutes to Canary Wharf.
The social and economic geography of Britain would be transformed. And compared to either of the other options for providing additional intercity transport capacity in the next generation – expanded motorways or more domestic aviation – the carbon impact is far less, which is part of the reason Ed Miliband supported the plans so enthusiastically.
However, the case for high-speed rail turns not only on speed and carbon reduction, but also on capacity and connectivity.
The existing West Coast Main Line from London to Birmingham, Manchester, the northwest and Glasgow is already operating near capacity at its southern end, and it will be severely overloaded and congested by the mid-2020s even with longer trains. There will also be serious capacity constraints on both the Midland Main Line (from London to Derby, Nottingham and Sheffield), and the East Coast Main Line (from London to Leeds, York, Newcastle and Edinburgh).
Without high-speed rail, the upgrading of the West Coast Main Line between London and the west Midlands required to ease this congestion, and enable more freight to be carried by rail, would in fact cost more than the £17 billion cost of the proposed High Speed Two line from London to Birmingham. Yet upgrading existing lines provides only a fraction of the extra capacity of a high-speed line, and few of the time saving and connectivity benefits.
It would be reactionary folly to baulk at the proposed HS2 project because of its public investment cost, only to have to pay more for a worse result by adopting a short-term patch-and-mend approach instead. Any traveller from Euston in the last decade remembers the cost and disruption of the last patch-and-mend strategy: £10 billion of investment to the West Coast Main Line, involving 10 years of constant disruption to services, with only modest extra capacity and reliability.
The connectivity gains from high-speed rail are equally impressive. Britain is still constrained by its Victorian railway network, built by competing private companies with their entirely separate London termini and routes north. Birmingham – Britain’s second city – is effectively an intercity branch line off the West Coast Main Line, so connections between Birmingham, the East Midlands, Sheffield, Leeds, Newcastle and the north are extremely poor.
The 335-mile ‘Y’ shaped HS2 line overcomes this historic weakness.
Birmingham International becomes the junction of the ‘Y’ as the line splits to the northwest, and the northeast. The connection directly into Crossrail in London multiplies these connectivity benefits still further. Equally important, the high-speed trains can run on both high-speed and existing track, so from the outset they are able to serve destinations beyond the initial ‘Y’ network (including Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow and Edinburgh).
Speed, capacity, connectivity, carbon reduction – HS2 unites all four to transform Britain’s 21st century transport networks. That’s why high-speed rail is one of our boldest progressive policies for renewing Britain, and promoting growth and social cohesion across the cities and regions. Only timidity and lack of vision hold it back.