Theresa Villiers and Cheryl Gillan on high speed rail
‘HS2 is a cancer that will cost our country dear’, by Cheryl Gillan, Sunday Telegraph, 6 January 2013
If the rail fare rises have made your eyes water, wait until you start paying the costs of the Labour-initiated folly HS2 – the leviathan scheme to take a few minutes off the time of a journey to Birmingham and create a Y-shaped railway to the North, mostly at the expense of homes and virgin countryside.
In opposition, the Tories pledged to rejuvenate our railways with high-speed links – a laudable aim, and one Labour should have started in the years of plenty. But Labour barely electrified a single additional mile of rail, and came up with the idea of HS2 to “fill the gap”. Andrew Adonis, then transport secretary, announced the scheme in Labour’s dying days. (It had the added “benefit” of ripping through several Tory constituencies.) But the plan was neither integrated nor affordable. And, sadly, my own colleagues, in the melee of creating the Coalition, failed to do detailed work on Britain’s future transport requirements. Their idea of leadership was simply to adopt the previous administration’s skimpy plans.
Dazzled in the headlights of this “grand project”, successive ministers failed to query the plans in any great depth. Officials galloped ahead, securing their jobs at a time of a shrinking Civil Service, and building an edifice, in HS2 Ltd, which is separate from government and which is simply there to drive the project forward. Three transport secretaries have not had the courage to ask questions, because there is also a common view that both David Cameron and George Osborne want this railway and should have it no matter what the cost. In fact, neither the Prime Minister nor the Chancellor appear to have paid great attention to the details.
And HS2 may soon be unstoppable, growing like a cancer, a project in isolation – failing to connect to HS1 and its access to Europe, or our current main airport at Heathrow, or even with Birmingham city centre. Its price tag is rising steeply, and it has a cost/benefit ratio that in normal circumstances should shame the Treasury into calling an immediate halt. And if any attempt at integrating HS2 is to be made, this should also be suspended at least until we know where our main hub airport is going to be.
So why does the Government not invest in the existing network? Well, it has made a start. The electrification of the London to Swansea line by 2017 will bring economic benefits at a fraction of the price of HS2. Adding longer trains, classless travel, better rolling stock and longer platforms could relieve overcrowding. This approach would give us the time to establish where the future hub airport will be; that, after all, is the key to our long-term prosperity. It would also enable us to plan efficient terrestrial transport connections rather than being locked into the Procrustean bed of HS2. […]
Conservative party press release: ‘A High-Speed Future?’, Theresa Villiers, 15 October 2009
Rt. Hon Theresa Villiers, Thursday, October 15 2009
Within the space of twelve months this country has had three Secretaries of State for Transport. Even measured against the limited life expectancy of transport ministers, that is a rapid turn-over.
And in the past year, Labour’s flawed franchising process has contributed to a second debacle on the East Coast Main Line with National Express set to follow the melancholy example of its predecessor, GNER.
But perhaps most significantly for the future of transport, this year has seen high speed rail shoot to the top of the agenda for all political parties.
A year ago, my announcement that a Conservative Government would use high speed rail to revolutionise travel in the UK was met with unqualified scorn by the then Secretary of State, Ruth Kelly. Fast forward a year, and, today, high speed features in the transport plans of almost all political parties.
However, it is wise to look beneath the surface when it comes to statements on high speed rail. While Labour have undergone something of a Damascene conversion recently, all Lord Adonis has actually been allowed to do so far is to set up a group – HS2 Ltd – to consider the option of a line to the West Midlands.
Labour may try dress this up as a connection from London to Scotland but when you look at the fine print in HS2’s remit, it is clear that Labour’s plans for high speed rail leave anything north of Birmingham stuck in the realms of speculation. Add to that, the fact that the last Budget, published a mere three months after HS2 was set up, made no mention of high speed rail whatsoever.
Compare this with the clear commitment I made at the 2008 Conservative Conference – that a Conservative Government would build a high speed rail line connecting London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds with Europe via the Channel tunnel rail link (or HS1 as it is now known). We see this as the first part of a national network, which will ultimately see our line extended to Newcastle and Scotland, with further lines connecting up cities right across the UK in the future.
We have matched this vision with a realistic funding package. Our detailed desktop feasibility study has indicated that this line would cost around £20 billion, with £15.7 billion needed from public funds – averaging out at roughly £1.3bn over the 12 year period the experts tell us construction would. All figures are at today’s prices and the major spend would not start until construction gets underway in 2015, allowing for 5 years planning and parliamentary time after a 2010 election.
What we have, and what no other political party has yet matched, is a time-tabled and costed plan for a major high speed rail line – a significant step towards a full north-south high speed line, and a leap forward towards one day delivering a high speed rail network for whole the country.
Network Rail’s report released over the summer, confirms our view that high speed rail can have a significant impact on releasing capacity on our overstretched road network, and also achieve significant modal shift from air. Our calculations, based on figures for flight numbers published by the Government in 2008, show that a high speed rail line from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, with a link into Heathrow and HS1 to the Channel Tunnel, could provide a realistic alternative to as many as 63,200 flights. As Lord Adonis admitted to The Guardian newspaper, one only needs to look at experience in France and Spain to see how high speed rail can provide a viable alternative to many domestic and short-haul flights.
Network Rail also calculates that the high speed rail network they propose between London and Scotland can save 50 million hours per annum by 2030 as a result of reduced travel time between city centres – the equivalent of over 5707 years! That means more time with your family, promoting your business, or generally more time for the more enjoyable things in life once you have got from A to B.
Network Rail’s report was swiftly followed by a bold vision from Greengauge 21. They argue that a 25 year programme of investment in a high speed rail network would deliver a total £111 billion in economic benefits over 60 years – outweighing the cost by a ratio of over 3:1. Greengauge 21 have also adamantly argued against premium fares for a new high speed rail line. We too believe that there is no benefit in building a new line which no one can afford to use and our calculations on future fare revenue are premised on keeping the line affordable for passengers.
While Greengauge 21 rightly point out that high speed rail is not a panacea to correct all the imbalances in regional development, they argue that it can create major opportunities for growth and development outside the wider south-east – helping to balance the north-south divide. One of the most attractive aspects of high speed rail is its ability to open up new alignments of economic activity and to provide a legacy of jobs right across the country.
However, enthusiasm for high speed rail does not mean we should take our eye off the ball when it comes to delivering improved services on the existing rail network and tackling the overcrowding problems that have been so intense in recent years.
High speed rail will have a significant positive effect on the existing network. According to the Network Rail study, a high speed line to Manchester could deliver a reduction in crowding worth 4.2 million hours per annum by 2030 and 100 additional flows on the West Coast for places such as Macclesfield, Milton Keynes and Coventry. As the West Coast Main Line is widely accepted to reach capacity within the next 10 years the need to tackle overcrowding on this route has never been more important.
However, the steps we need to take to improve our railways do not start and end with high speed rail. If this year has taught us anything it is that Labour’s franchising system is not fit for purpose. It will be important for any administration after the next election to get this issue right before it re-lets the East Coast, c2c and the West Coast – all due in close succession. Conservatives set out their plans for better franchises in January this year. If elected, we will aim to let longer franchises of around 15 years which will incentivise operators to invest in capacity enhancements and passenger focused improvements. We will also let more flexible franchises, with greater emphasis on outputs, shifting away from Labour’s highly detailed specification. And we will let franchises with a focus on delivering more for the passenger and not just on how much can be squeezed out of them high fares.
Our eight point plan for the railways focuses on putting passenger interest at the heart of decision-making on the railways. So we would turn the rail regulator into a strong passenger champion and take steps to get the different elements of the rail industry working more cohesively together – so that when things go wrong, issues can be sorted out quickly and pragmatically, and finger-pointing and blame-dodging can be avoided wherever possible.
And we will get tough on Network Rail, by creating effective accountability structures and giving the regulator the power to block bonuses of senior executives in the event of serious failure. We will give train operators the chance to deliver the smaller capacity enhancements that are needed to deliver a better experience for the passenger, rather than leaving this solely to Network Rail. Our aim is to find ways to move more quickly and cost effectively towards key improvements for passengers such as longer trains, longer platforms and better station facilities.
Labour’s 30-year strategy published just a couple of years ago went only as far as 2014. By contrast, a Conservative vision will tackle the dual issues of improving the railway we have now while planning an ambitious future for the high speed network we will develop for the future.
In the 1970s, as optimistic advertisers hailed the “Age of the train”, it looked as if the railways had had their day and would face inevitable and steady decline. Thirty years on, with grid-locked roads and a desperate need to tackle climate change, it is now clear that railways must be at the heart of any credible modern transport policy. We are determined that this would be the case if a Conservative Government is elected next year.