9th January 2012 Articles
The urgently needed high-speed modernisation of our railways is being put at risk by slow-footed ministers
The only thing high speed about the development of High Speed 2 in Britain is the treading of water. If Justine Greening, the Transport Secretary, gives the go-ahead to the new rail line from London to Birmingham tomorrow, it will be nearly two years since I announced the HS2 scheme on behalf of the last Government. Her department is indicating it could be another two years before Parliament even votes on the proposition, which will be several years before a building contractor gets near the Chilterns.
And that is just London to Birmingham. A route has not yet been published to take the line north to Manchester and Leeds, the vital next stage of the project that ought by now to have been integrated into the initial 100-mile scheme. If the same approach had been taken to the Olympics, we would be preparing for 2032.
The valid criticism of the governmnet is not that it is riding roughshod over Nimbys in the Chilterns. Rather, ministers have stalled the project while dithering over straightforward local mitigation issues. They make the mistake of believing that opposition to big infrastructure projects diminishes the longer you drag out consultations. Delay simply entrenches opposition – including hostility within the Conservative Party, which is dogging HS2 – and gives it the belief that “one last heave” will see off a prevaricating government.
I have been here time and again. While preparing the HS2 plan, candid political friends told me that the route should not be published until after the 2010 election. It was the same with academy schools: there was always a political reason urged for delaying the necessary action against failing comprehensives and local authorities.
A two-year delay in the legislation for HS2 could be catastrophic. It pitches the key parliamentary votes into the run-up to the next election, magnifying pressure on local MPs – who will also be facing reselection problems because of boundary changes – to cave in to Nimbys and endangering the cross-party consensus that has so far held firm.
The national interest needs to come first. This is in the interst of the parties too, since nothing corrodes their credibility more than inaction in the face of big national problems. And transport is one of the biggest. The Victorians were brilliant railway pioneers but their successors found it all too difficult and allowed Britain to enter the 21st century with intercity connections worse not only than in France and Germany but also Italy and Spain and very soon China.
No other infrastructure project matches HS2 in nationwide benefits. It will transform rail capacity between the major conurbations. This is the killer argument for HS2. Without it, as the latest Network Rail report emphasises, there will be decade after decade of expensive, disruptive patch-and-mend of the Victorian railway – like the last upgrade of the West Coast Main Line, which cost £10 billion and was a ten-year nightmare for travellers.
Transport Department figures show that to provide just two-thirds of the capacity of HS2 from London to Birmingham, and none of the benefits of faster journey times, by upgrading existing lines would cost £20 billion against the £17 billion of HS2. That figure does not price in the disruption of patch-and-mend.
Critics say that HS2 saves “only” half an hour between London and Birmingham. But that is 33 minutes off the current 82 minute journey time – more than a third off every journey, making England’s first and second cities only 49 minutes apart. The time savings become far greater as trains proceed to Manchester, Liverpool, Nottingham, Derby, Sheffield, Leeds, Newcastle, Glasgow and Edinburgh. HS2 has an essential part to play in bridging the north-south divide.
HS2 also radically improves connections between England’s provincial cities. The private Victorian railway companies built mostly separate main lines from provincial cities to London, which is why links between most provincial cities remain terrrible. Birmingham and Manchester are only 82 miles apart by rail, yet the journey takes one and a half hours. It would be 40 minutes by HS2.
Journeys will be further shortened by the proposed interchange near Paddington between HS2 and the new £16 billion Crossrail line from west to east London. This will give an 11-minute connection to Heathrow, and direct fast underground trains to the West End, the City and Docklands, without going via Euston and its congested Victoria and Northern lines. It would be a rare case in England of joining up two major transport infrastructure projects at the moment of conception.
David Cameron needs to advance HS2 with all deliberate speed and with the full authority of the State. Instead, in the space of just 20 months there have been two Transport Secretaries and there is about to be a third permanent secretary in an all-change Transport Department.
The Government must introduce legislation to implement HS2 this year, not later. It must publish the plan for the line north of Birmingham soon, and either integrate this with the initial legislation after route consultation, or set out an early timetable for the second phase so that it too opens in the late 2020s. Then at least some people now alive might actually get to travel on HS2, and Brunel and Stephenson can rest in peace.