4th October 2011 Articles
Times article on high-speed rail and Heathrow
The Conservative conference is being targeted by anti-high-speed rail protesters from the Chilterns, battling it out with the leaders of the host city of Manchester who are passionately pro-HS2. It was the same at the Labour and Lib Dem conferences. For the golden rule of high-speed rail is that everyone wants the stations but no one wants the line.
So far, a cross-party consensus on HS2 has held firm. Philip Hammond, the Transport Secretary, has shown commendable resolution in sticking broadly to the plan set out by the last Government, which followed cross-party engagement, while Labour has resisted the temptation to jump on Nimby bandwagons.
With continued consensus, HS2 might just happen in the 2020s. Britain will then be only 60 years behind Japan, which in 1964 opened its first inter-city high-speed line, from Tokyo to Osaka, about the distance from London to Glasgow; and a mere 45 years behind France, about to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its first TGV, from Paris to Lyons, a bit farther than London to Manchester.
Much of the industrial world now links its main cities by high-speed rail. In Britain, we boast 67 miles of High Speed One from London to the Channel Tunnel. This proves that modern rail technology isn’t somehow alien to our climate, but it does not connect any of Britain’s conurbations.
Protesters dwell on the “only” half an hour saved on journeys from London to Birmingham — although think of the transformed relationship between Britain’s first and second cities when they are barely 50 minutes apart, let alone the greater time savings as the line extends north.
But the killer argument for HS2 is capacity. It would cost more than HS2, in straight cash, to upgrade existing rail lines to provide only two thirds of the extra capacity of HS2. This is without pricing the cost of disruption while upgrades take place — a decade of chaos has only just ended from the last West Coast Main Line £10 billion upgrade — or the benefits of building a new line with 21st-century technology rather than another patch-and-mend of the Victorian railway.
If HS2 proceeds, it won’t be because of the foresight of the last generation of politicians. As late as 2007, the Labour Government published a rail strategy whose forward planning stopped in 2014. Until 2009 there wasn’t even a plan to electrify the main line from London to Bristol and Cardiff. Wales is the only European nation besides Albania without a mile of electrified railway. But at least HS2 is on its way, albeit with lengthy planning battles ahead. The same cannot be said for any credible policy on airport expansion in southeast England, another infrastructure imperative.
A third runway at Heathrow is urgently needed because Britain’s only hub airport is at full capacity. In this harsh economic climate, it is national self-mutilation to constrain business by refusing to expand airport capacity in the South East — not just at Heathrow, but at Stansted and Gatwick too, which have also been ruled out for new runways by the Government. And the lost business is being snapped up by our rivals: Frankfurt opens its fourth runway this autumn; Paris Charles de Gaulle also has four; and Schiphol, in Amsterdam, has six.
Airport planning is a long-running sore. Harold Wilson’s short-sighted cancellation of the Maplin project in the Thames Estuary in 1974 scuppered the creation of an international airport for London with flight paths well away from dense residential areas.
To avoid repeating mistakes, it helps to be self-critical. I now greatly regret announcing the expansion of Heathrow in the run-up to the last election in the knowledge that David Cameron would oppose it. Mr Cameron was of course opportunist and we went to town on the fact. But this missed the point that without an agreement with the Opposition, as part of a broader consensus, the announcement was going nowhere and simply encouraged the Tories to rule out a sensible policy for five years.
The right course would have been to establish a cross-party review of airports policy, including business leaders and the Committee on Climate Change, to report at arm’s length from government. And the right course now would be for the coalition to do precisely this. The review should also assess the case for a new airport in the Thames Estuary to replace Heathrow.
We can learn from successes as well as the failures. Crossrail has, so far, been a triumph of consensual planning. The £16 billion east-west London scheme, an equivalent of the RER lines in Paris, has survived both a change of mayor and of government. This is because Ken Livingstone, when mayor, worked hand-in-glove with business leaders not only to promote Crossrail but also to fashion a public-private funding mechanism, including significant business contributions. This made Crossrail hard for an incoming mayor to oppose, and still harder for an incoming chancellor to cancel.
Effective infrastructure planning isn’t just about lines on maps and benefit-cost ratios. It is about strong, constructive and bipartisan leadership. We have had too little in the past, and we need more in the future.