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Richard Mabey: The Government should look again at the 2009 HS2 plans to build a cross-party consensus for a better route

Richard mabey (1)Richard Mabey is Research Secretary of the Bow Group, which today publishes its latest Target Paper, Winning the consensus on High Speed Rail – Why all parties should now support the best route for HS2(pdf). In January 2010 the Bow Group published The Right Track – Delivering the Conservatives’ Vision for High Speed Rail (pdf) supporting 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.

Anyone who has ever disembarked from a plane at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport to catch a high speed train has enjoyed a short and swift transfer.  This major airport, like so many others on the Continent, has joined aviation and high speed rail to allow direct and unhindered transfer from air to rail and vice versa.  Other major continental airports like Charles de Gaulle and Frankfurt have built high speed railway stations at airports in order to provide the best transport and passenger experience and boost the business case for high speed rail.  So why is the Government not proposing this model for Britain’s latest, and arguably most important section of high speed rail?

Justine Greening’s decision to delay her announcement on HS2 was as important as it was opportune.  To get this project wrong would be nothing short of a national disaster given the sums of money involved, the implications for a more balanced UK economy, environmental impact, and HS2’s ultimate viability.

The Bow Group has taken a close interest in High Speed Rail (HSR) for many years.  The Group produced a weighty tome in the shape of The Right Track (pdf) to argue in favour of taking the new high speed line to Birmingham so that it directly interlined with Britain’s only international hub airport at Heathrow and then followed existing transport corridors, such as the M40 and Chilterns Railway, to Birmingham.

A route first devised by the Conservatives in 2009 involved tunnelling under west London to Heathrow and then proceeding alongside existing transport corridors to Birmingham and beyond.  This would allow a high speed rail interchange at Heathrow with the Great Western Main Line, the M25 and also allow high speed Javelin trains to come through London from HS1 to Heathrow and then access a new electrified GWML and travel on to important centres like Oxford, Basingstoke and even the south coast.  This interchange, which could enjoy significant private sector funding would, using the Government’s own figures, shave up to £2bn off the costs of the Government’s preferred route for HS2 which is to avoid a direct link with Heathrow in the first phase and then ‘bolt on’ a spur line later.  Where Labour once opposed this route, they now back it.  Where Conservatives once backed this route, they now oppose it

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, and 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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