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Tony Lodge: Labour is now supporting the original Conservative route for HS2 - so why is the Coalition supporting the old (and wrong) Labour route?

Lodge tony 2Tony 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 (pdf), was published by the Bow Group in January 2010. It supported directly routing HS2 to Heathrow and then following the M40 to Birmingham, following the best practice learnt from the construction of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (now HS1) in the early 1990s.

The ghost of the Whitehall farce is beginning to shroud the policy to build the next stage of the country’s High Speed Rail network.  For those of us who have followed the evolution of different routes, proposed branch lines, spurs and no end of theories on how best to create the best business case, the announcement yesterday by the Shadow Transport Secretary, Maria Eagle was significant.  Her decision to abandon the old Labour HS2 route of avoiding Heathrow and to instead now support a direct link to the airport is both significant and potentially life-saving for the HS2 project.

Ironically, Maria Eagle is now supporting a policy first floated and promoted by the Conservative Party in 2009 and backed by the creator of Britain’s first high speed railway through Kent, between St Pancras and the Channel Tunnel (HS1).

In February 2009 the Conservative Rail Review – ‘Getting the Best for Passengers’, under the then Shadow Transport Secretary, Theresa Villiers, (now the Minister of State at Transport) stated, “A Conservative Government will support proposals for a new Heathrow rail hub.  Good connections to major airports could significantly enhance the benefits of high speed rail.”  This route (the one now backed by Maria Eagle) was supported by many Conservatives as it would allow high speed rail to interline with existing rail and air capacity, thus boosting its business case, and also allow it to minimise its environmental impact by then running parallel with existing motorways and transport corridors such as the M40 and Chilterns railway to Birmingham.  Importantly, this route would not affect the widest part of the Chilterns’ Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) unlike Labour’s then chosen route.

Labour’s then Transport Secretary, Lord Adonis, spoke passionately for a HS2 route which instead prioritised speed over capacity.  It would carve through the AONB and would consequently face huge opposition and potential judicial hurdles.  Any direct link to Britain’s only hub airport at Heathrow would have to wait until the 2030s at the earliest and this would be a branch line and then possibly at a later date a loop line.  In 2009 the Conservatives were right on HS2 and Labour were wrong.  Experts from HS1, Chilterns campaigners, the aviation sector and best high speed rail practice from across the world supported the Conservative route for HS2.  So what happened?

Role Reversal – As a result of Maria Eagle’s policy change we have a quite extraordinary situation.  Following the election of the Coalition Government in May 2010 the new Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond, announced in that summer that the old Conservative route was to be dropped and Labour’s unpopular and flawed route would be re-heated and supported by the new Conservative majority Government.  This has led to opposition from transport groups, many Conservative MPs in the Chilterns and the aviation sector.  But why did this happen?

Conspiracy theories have no role when such important projects are being discussed but between May 2010 and late summer 2010 the Department for Transport and the company set up to deliver HS2; HS2 Ltd, managed to pull the new Government away from its preferred route as announced in the Conservative Rail Review in 2009.  As things stand today Labour is now supporting the old Conservative route and the Conservatives the old Labour route. 

HS2 can only be delivered with a cross party consensus.  In the early 1990s then Shadow Transport Secretary John Prescott agreed with Michael Heseltine that the visionary route chosen for HS1 was best; it would hug the M20 in Kent, minimise impact in the AONB, approach London from the east and not from the south, as proposed by British Rail and civil servants.  The result is the magnificent redevelopment in the Thames Gateway and Stratford and the spectacle of St Pancras; perhaps the finest high speed railway terminal in the world.

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.  Conservatives first proposed the best route for HS2 and they should now form a consensus with Labour and secure the best route in the national interest. Credit is due to Labour for accepting that the Conservative 2009 route was right. The Government must now seize this opportunity to build a Parliamentary consensus to achieve the right solution for HS2.  


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