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Tony Lodge: Why Labour’s High Speed Rail route must be shunted sideways

Tony Lodge Tony Lodge is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies, Chairman of the Bow Group Transport Committee and a member of the Conservative Transport Group.  His pamphlet, The Right Track – Delivering the Conservatives’ Vision for High Speed Rail, was published by the Bow Group in January this year and carried a foreword by Lord Heseltine.

Transport Secretary Philip Hammond has a problem.  The Whitehall quango set up by the Labour Government to design the next stage of the country’s High Speed Rail network, HS2 Ltd, has delivered him the wrong solution.

Focused exclusively on offering city dwellers a super-fast commute between Birmingham and London, HS2 have squandered over £5 million of taxpayers' money by drawing what is effectively a straight line on a map.  The Bow Group warned of this in The Right Track earlier this year and called on policymakers to learn the lesson from High Speed 1, running between St Pancras and the Channel Tunnel using an unconventional but highly successful new route.

By adopting economic assessment tools that prioritise journey time over cost and environmental considerations, HS2 Ltd have produced a route that would have Brunel spinning in his grave.   Under their proposals, a new High Speed Rail track would cut through the widest sections of the Chilterns' Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), traverse 17km of ‘high risk flood areas’, require the destruction of hundreds of homes, and blight thousands more with noise pollution.

In one of the worst cases of civil service command and control (not seen since the bad old days of British Rail), the railwaymen of HS2 Ltd have developed their route behind closed doors, with no consultation of the general public. Moreover, to satisfy Lord Adonis’ election timetable, they failed to propose to directly connect it to Britain’s existing High Speed Rail infrastructure (HS1) as well as the world’s busiest airport, Heathrow.  Thankfully, some new Conservative members of the Commons Transport Select Committee are now on the case.

As soon as he took control of the Department for Transport, Philip Hammond immediately and rightly sent HS2 Ltd back to the drawing board, instructing his officials to investigate the connection of any new high speed rail route to both HS1 and Heathrow.  Since then, HS2 Ltd has been beavering away on plans to retrofit additions to their original flawed plans.  They hope this will be enough to convince Philip Hammond to drop the Conservative Party’s pre-election pledge to ditch the HS2 Ltd alignment in favour of an alternative which emerged from the private sector.

The alternative, which featured in the Conservative Party’s Rail Review last year, was developed by engineering giant Ove Arup.  In contrast to HS2 Ltd, Arup has developed a route which crosses the narrowest section of the Chiltern’s AONB.  Apart from a few tweaks, the Bow Group broadly supports this route.  It also offers towns along the track access to the High Speed Rail infrastructure.   Whereas HS2 Ltd’s proposal would result in house prices falling steeply, the alternative would have the opposite effect – bringing access to Heathrow and Europe to the doorsteps of Princes Risborough, Aylesbury and Milton Keynes. 

This alternative plan, one of a number to emerge from the private sector, was also attractive since it effectively replaced a number of Heathrow bound flights with High Speed Rail.  As David Cameron said before the election, “We want to see a proper rail hub at Heathrow… all those flights that serve places that could be met by rail, all of those will be met by rail." 

As I discovered when researching The Right Track, European experience is unequivocal – be it Schiphol (Amsterdam), Charles de Gaulle (Paris) or Frankfurt, successful High Speed Rail/air interchanges must be located directly on the high speed line. I visited these airports and rail hubs. If the HS2 Ltd retrofit places Heathrow at the end of a branch or loop line, Britain will stand alone in Europe as the only country to have failed to seamlessly integrate its major transport infrastructure.  Research by the Systra consulting group shows that changing trains during a journey to an airport chokes off demand by approximately 50%.

In classic Yes Minister style, civil servants appear to be doing everything in their power to safeguard their original plan.

However Philip Hammond is an exceptionally capable minister. Although he’s had a turkey delivered, he is not obliged to buy it.  His experience of putting officials back in their box, most recently on the issue of Heathrow’s third runway, gives him form.  He should use High Speed Rail to show that no project is too big to involve the Big Society.  After all, if the Prime Minister’s vision stands for anything, it’s to stop quangos like HS2 Ltd making important decisions which would be better made by engaging early on with the communities which are to be affected by it as well as the private sector which will be expected to deliver it.

In the 1980s, British Rail and slavish civil servants wanted to deliver the first permanent section of high speed rail though the south London suburbs into Waterloo.  This would have involved no regeneration of the communities along the route and restricted the speed of the line and its ability for connection to a national high speed network as the terminal was on the wrong side of London. Instead it was left to politicians with vision to veto this industry mentality and argue for a then radical route to come in through north Kent, along the depressed Thames Estuary and into London from the north.  The result is the Thames Gateway, the Olympic Park and the interconnection potential which now exists at St Pancras for the future national high speed network.

The interconnection of airports with high speed rail is not particularly visionary as it has been done before with great success by our leading economic competitors.  But to ignore this success is both confused and wrong.   Labour’s high speed plans should have been ditched along with the Party on May 6th.


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