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Tony Lodge: Why we risk getting High Speed Rail so wrong

Tony_lodge Tony Lodge is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies and chairman of the Bow Group's Transport Committee. The Right Track – Delivering the Conservatives’ Vision for High Speed Rail, by Tony Lodge and with a foreword by Lord Heseltine, is published today by the Bow Group.

Britain risks getting the next stage of high speed rail (HSR) badly wrong.  A number of proposals to link London with the rest of the country, known as ‘High Speed 2’, have been submitted to Ministers but Bow Group research shows that many fall well short of what is needed to make high speed rail travel a success.

The new Bow Group pamphlet, The Right Track – Delivering the Conservatives’ Vision for High Speed Rail, has analysed each of the proposals and highlighted major weaknesses in some of the routes, one of which could still be chosen before the next general election.

A popular exhibit in the National Railway Museum is the Japanese Bullet Train.  A design icon, it transformed how the world thought about and experienced rail travel.  However, the Bullet Train is in a museum for a good reason.  To the Japanese, high speed rail is old news as the first bullet train sped between Tokyo and Osaka in 1964. Tragically, for the nation which invented rail, it would be a further 42 years before Britain could boast of its own high speed railway. 

The Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL), now rebranded High Speed 1 (HS1), is Britain’s first, and only, high speed railway line, and it is the creation of not one, but two Conservative Governments.  Having successfully secured Britain’s budget rebate in 1984, and eager to promote free-trade within the EEC, Margaret Thatcher signed the Channel Tunnel Treaty with President Mitterrand in 1986. However, the important decision of how to link the entrance to the Channel Tunnel in Folkestone to a Central London station was left to the Major Government, and in particular, to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Heseltine, who has assisted the Bow Group with this research.

In 1991, the Conservative Government vetoed a route proposed by the monopoly-giant British Rail that followed existing mainline rail corridors into central London.  They chose instead to maximise the opportunity presented to them by using the new high-speed railway line as a catalyst for regeneration. By carefully selecting an alignment which entered central London from the East, rather than from the South as British Rail had proposed, the Government set in place the foundations for the radical regeneration of Ebbsfleet, Stratford and Kings Cross.  Today’s Thames Gateway is the spectacular result.

Demand around the world for high speed rail is booming.  There are 10,739 km of lines in operation, 13,469 km of lines under construction and 17,579 km of lines in project planning. As a mode of transport, HSR is up to fifty times less polluting per passenger mile than travel by car, and seventy times less polluting than flights.

In Britain the Government has set up a company to examine and choose the route for the next stage of high speed rail travel between London, Birmingham and the north. HS2 Ltd is set to report on its chosen route in the spring, possibly during or just before the general election.

It is vitally important, as demonstrated so effectively on the Continent, that high speed rail should be directly linked into Britain’s main airports and our only hub airport at Heathrow. This will require the construction of a new ‘hub’ interchange railway station alongside the airport allowing us to combine HS2, the Great Western Main Line connecting Paddington, Wales and western England, the Chiltern Line, Crossrail and new Airtrack services from the south west and Waterloo.

Heathrow is a vitally important national asset but one of the most difficult national airports in Europe to reach by rail, thus forcing many potential travellers to use short haul regional airports to reach other European hub airports to change planes.  This affects Heathrow’s ability to compete against its European competitors such as Amsterdam Schiphol and Paris Charles de Gaulle.  For example, more than ten thousand west country passengers a week are turning their backs on direct flights from London airports and instead travelling between Bristol International Airport to other hubs like Amsterdam and Paris largely due to the lack of effective rail access to Heathrow. 

Successful direct HS2 connection would provide the airport with a seamless connection with urban centres which have never largely bothered to use the airport before due to its chronic lack of public transport access.  At the moment travellers from Wales or Bristol wishing to use the airport either have to bypass the airport altogether on the Great Western Main Line and go into Paddington, only then to come back out by Heathrow Express, or change at Reading for a coach or taxi.  This is hardly an attractive or efficient 21st Century transport experience. 

Travellers from Birmingham similarly travel down the West Coast Main Line and again have to travel from Euston to Paddington to travel back out to the airport.  HSR should continue on from the Heathrow interchange station to Birmingham Airport and then Birmingham city, which it could reach in a mere 45 minutes, and then onto Manchester Airport and onwards to the city itself and then Leeds.

At Schiphol and Charles de Gaulle Dutch and French high speed trains travel seamlessly through specialist airport stations.  Without direct HSR connection to Heathrow traffic congestion and pollution around the airport and the M25 will continue to be amongst the worst in Europe.  Most people arrive at Heathrow by car, again due to its poor public transport surface access.  This will require some expansion at Heathrow as HSR through the airport could deliver up to five million more passengers a year.

The Government must not just listen to the rail industry when making its choice for the route of HS2.  British Rail was wrong in its choice for the first section of high speed rail, between London and the Channel Tunnel in the 1980s and a better route, promoted by Lord Heseltine, was chosen.  Similarly, a route which connects our airports directly with HSR must now be chosen in order to deliver Britain’s so far elusive integrated transport policy.


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