24th September 2011 Articles
We must not oppose high-speed rail for opposition’s sake. High Speed Two is Labour’s scheme in origin and conception. Our battle with the Tories should not be on the existing HS2 proposal, but on taking the line right through from London to Manchester and Leeds as a single project rather than stopping at Birmingham as the coalition currently intends.
The danger of opposition is that you oppose for the sake of opposing, whatever the merits of the case. In the case of HS2 this would be especially crass, since HS2 is Labour’s scheme. We have the good fortune to be watching a Tory secretary of state take on the wealthy, self-interested NIMBYs of the Chilterns who would have been making our life a misery, doubtless with official Tory support, if Labour were in government pushing the scheme through. The line has to go through the Chilterns: there is no other sufficiently direct route from London to Birmingham, and the coalition is sticking almost precisely to the plan that Labour published before the election.
The conception of HS2 is as much Labour’s as the route. We favour public transport over yet more motorway building or domestic aviation; new technology over old technology; and growth over short-sighted investment cuts. We also believe in narrowing the north-south divide to share jobs and prosperity more evenly across Britain, without yet more concentration in the overheated south-east.
HS2 is critical in all these respects. Significant extra rail capacity will be needed on the existing north-south West Coast Main Line from the 2020s. The choice is simple: either yet more patch and mend, which, according to official figures, will ultimately end up costing more than a new high-speed line while delivering only two-thirds of the extra rail capacity, or conceive and build HS2 as a single integrated project, delivering not only extra capacity but also big journey time reductions and improved connectivity between London and the major cities of the Midlands and the north.
The city-centre terminus-to-terminus journey time by HS2 is reduced to 50 minutes from London to Birmingham, and barely 80 minutes from London to Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds, with through trains to Edinburgh and Glasgow accelerated to three and a half hours. The plan is also for HS2 to link directly – by an interchange station west of Paddington – to Labour’s new £16bn Crossrail line which from 2017 will run through central London to the east, slashing journey times further and increasing capacity and convenience for journeys via HS2 and Crossrail to London’s West End, City, Docklands and Stratford, with connections beyond.
Virtually every socialist government in continental Europe – led by Germany, France and Spain – started building high-speed rail decades ago. The campaign against HS2 is being led by the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Adam Smith Institute, the Taxpayers’ Alliance and Tories in the Chilterns. A recent IEA report wanted HS2 scrapped, with new motorways built in the south-east instead.
Labour must stick to the progressive side of this debate and back HS2 through to Manchester and Leeds as a key infrastructure and social project for national cohesion and prosperity.