After 18 years of prevarication, Gordon Brown has committed to delivering Crossrail for Londoners. In Scotland, ‘Wee Eck’ has promised his SNP administration will build the badly needed high-speed rail link between Edinburgh and Glasgow. At the next General Election, what should Conservatives be offering rail passengers?
Britain’s railways are almost at capacity. More passengers are now travelling by train than at any time since 1946. Despite over-crowding, steep fare rises and saturation on many lines, passenger numbers are growing faster here than in any other European country. Growth in demand shows now signs of abating; Government predicts a 25% increase in passengers by 2014, but more realistic estimates are closer to 40%.
In its five-year plan for rail announced in July, the Government took the easy option of attempting to choke demand through steeply increasing fares, rather than addressing the urgent need for new lines in helping meet greater capacity. Track-building will be limited to tackling a few bottle-necks and small increases in capacity achieved through adding carriages to some of the busiest trains.
Our transport infrastructure is now woefully inadequate after decades of such under-investment by governments of both parties. This negligence has made our lives miserable through ever longer and more uncomfortable commutes. A considerable economic price is also being paid for these failures. This includes further exacerbation of the gulf between turbo-capitalist London and the many parts of the country sustained by near Soviet levels of public spending.
Earlier this year, the Gummer/Goldsmith report noted that:
"The UK is the only nation in the EU with such marked difference in economic performance between its capital and other major cities…Transport is a key enabler of economic growth, and there are strong arguments for using infrastructure investment on inter-urban routes to spread the benefit and burden of growth."
Gummer and Goldsmith’s recommendations on car use may have been unrealistic and damaging. However they are surely right in concluding there is an urgent need to enhance capacity on key rail corridors to accommodate substantial additional passenger growth. After winning power, they recommend Conservatives develop high speed rail links between North and South after a thorough but rapid review of priority destinations and suitable technologies.
It currently takes around 5 hours to travel from London to Glasgow, and 2.5 hours from London to Leeds. High speed rail could reduce these journey times to 2.75 hours and 1.5 hours respectively.
The economic case is compelling. Excellent transport links from the north of England and Scotland to London would slow the relentless brain drain towards the capital. Many workers have to visit London regularly on business. A modern north-south link would encourage large numbers to base themselves further from London to take advantage of lower house prices and a higher quality of life. Wealth and prosperity would be better spread.
The environmental benefits would be enormous. Starting to decouple economic growth from transport emissions will be vital if David Cameron’s aspirations for ‘green growth’ are to be realised. Many of us would be happily swap our cheap flights to Scotland for fast and more comfortable trains. Rail freight increased 60% between 1995-2005, and significant increases in track capacity will prevent our motorways becoming further clogged with large trucks.
The Conservative Party is the only party that can deliver the high-speed north-south rail links that are so urgently needed. Labour has kicked the matter into touch, refusing to take a decision before 2012. We must be bolder. Championing these links would not only be right on economic and environmental grounds; the political dividends for our party could be great. What could better demonstrate the Conservative Party’s commitment to increase prosperity across the whole country? England and Scotland would be brought closer together, strengthening the Union.
There is, of course, the thorny issue of how a new Government would pay for this huge investment. I am no expert on the financing of large infrastructure projects. Yesterday The Times signalled its confidence that significant private money will be available to help given appropriate incentives, a stable planning framework and sufficient political will. By providing the will the Government clearly lacks, David Cameron and Theresa Villiers may be able to deliver the rail network Britain needs to remain competitive and united.