The flurry of recent negative reports about HS2 has prompted me to put together a more balanced appraisal of the project. It is a subject in which I have taken a keen interest and conducted extensive research; both as a member of Parliament's Transport Select Committee and as a local MP whose constituency is served by the West Coast Main Line and lies a few miles from the proposed HS2 route.
I do not write as an uncritical cheerleader for HS2. There are many aspects of the project on which I wish to see some improvement to ensure we secure the maximum benefit from it. For instance, I wish to see a better integration with airports along the route; I am not yet convinced that the planned connection with HS1 and the Channel Tunnel is the optimal one; and there is a need to ensure that the rolling stock which will be procured is fully "classic compatible" so that cities north of Leeds and Manchester see the maximum improvements in journey times.
But while I have some concerns about the detail of the project, in principle I remain supportive. This is not because I am infatuated by un grand projet. HS2 is a refreshing example of long-term strategic planning in this country which too often in the past we have shied away from and is one of the reasons why many parts of our rail system are currently overcrowded.
I believe that, properly planned and constructed, HS2 not only will give us fast rail journeys between our major town and cities but free up capacity on the existing "classic" network for more commuter trains, regional services and freight trains which are sorely needed. By the time that HS2 is fully operational in the 2030s, the UK's population is predicted to have grown by over eight million souls to exceed 70million. In my own area of Milton Keynes, we have plans to build over 25,000 new houses in the next couple of decades. More and more people are going to want to travel for business and leisure. Look too at the need to transport more freight around the country, and particular at the huge increase in port capacity being built a Felixstowe, London Gateway and beyond.
If we don't invest in our rail infrastructure, we are going to have to start building new motorways unless we want to become increasingly grid-locked or stay at home. Indeed, I've long thought that HS2 is a bit of a misnomer; the project should really be called High Capacity 2.
Let me turn to address some of the criticisms commonly made about HS2:
1. Wouldn't the money be better spent on improving the existing network?
If it was the case that HS2 was going to absorb all rail investment for the next two decades I would not support it. But the fact conveniently overlooked by HS2 opponents is that there is an enormous investment in the "classic" network, both happening now and planned for the future. Here are just a few: the building of Crossrail; the electrification of the Great Western Line from London to Bristol and South Wales; the new InterCity Express Programme trains to replace the 40 year-old High Speed Trains and other rolling stock on key mainlines; the re-opening of the "East West Line" from Milton Keynes to Oxford and Aylesbury; the rebuilding of major stations such as Reading and Kings Cross; the electrification of the Trans Pennine route and the "Northern Hub" project.
2. Rather than build a completely new line, can't you increase capacity on the West Coast Mainline (WCML) more cheaply and quickly?
There is already considerable investment going on to increase capacity on the WCML. For example, signalling systems are being modernised, extra carriages have been added to Pendolino trains, key "pinchpoints" such as Stafford are being re-modelled and the running speeds of some slower commuter trains are being increased to create more paths on the line. However, despite all this we will soon reach the point where there is not much more that can practically be done to improve capacity. There is also intense competition between the different types of services that need to use the line. The needs of the fast services between the Midlands/North and London which do not want to stop at intermediate stations are at odds with places like Milton Keynes that want to see inter-city services call. Add in too the demand for additional commuter trains and for more and more freight trains and we will reach the point where there is just not enough room left without rebuilding the whole of the WCML. Anyone who experienced the years of utter misery while the last WCML upgrade took place will know that is a very costly option.
3. The Cost is Escalating out of Control
Of course it is vital that the project is properly managed and kept within budget. While there are plenty of examples of infrastructure projects that have gone awry (such as the Edinburgh Trams fiasco), I do not share the pessimism that HS2 is doomed to fall into this category. We also have plenty of examples in this country which have been a huge success; the magnificent rebuilding of St Pancras station for the HS1 project was completed on time and within budget. Of course there should be no blank cheque but this is a management challenge and not one that should determine whether the project is viable or not.
Nor is the total cost payable in one lump sum. It is spread out over the lifetime of the project and the annual cost is consistent with the Government's overall spending plans. Moreover, we should not forget that it is an asset will be ours for decades, if not centuries.
Finally, on the cost point, I do not believe it is impossible for the project to attract private sector investment. From conversations I had with senior investment bank executives over the summer, there is an appetite amongst overseas investors to invest in long-term infrastructure projects in the UK. This is an option that should be seriously explored.
4. The Business Benefits are Not Robust
Numerous assertions have been made about HS2 benefitting only London. This is simply not the case. The evidence for this can be found both at home and abroad. Look first at HS1 between London and the Channel Tunnel. Many of the arguments made against HS2 were made about HS1. However, it is demonstrably delivering significant economic growth to places like Ashford and Ebbsfleet which are connected to the line. Overseas, look at Lille which has also reaped the economic rewards of a high speed rail network. They key here is to make sure that the destinations and intermediate stations on the high speed network are properly integrated with local transport networks to ensure that as wide a possible area an access and benefit from HS2.
I have also recently visited Taiwan to look at their new High Speed Railway, linking the two principal cities of the country. They experienced the same doubts about the need for the line and its cost and environmental impact. However, now that it has been in operation for five years it is returning a healthy profit, is popular and the discussion is about how to extend the line.
Another argument also made is that technological developments such as videoconferencing technology will diminish the need for rail travel. I simply ask, where is the evidence for this? We have seen technology develop at a break-neck speed over many years now; yet the demand for travel goes up.
Similarly it is argued that the HS2 business case is undermined because it ignores the fact that modern technology means people can work on trains. I would turn this point around and argue that it augments the case for rail travel. It means that business people can have quality time to work, reflect or relax in spacious, comfortable surroundings. Does that not add to the overall business value of HS2? Or, put another way, what is the economic cost of travellers being stressed and tired after being squeezed into the evermore crowded trains?
5. It will cause environmental damage
Again, the HS1 gives us good evidence that this is not the case. It was argued in the 1990s that HS1 would irreversibly scar the countryside of the Garden of England and subject its residents to intolerable noise pollution. The reality is much different and the fears have not been realised. I visited several locations along the route of HS1 and can testify that the sensitive design and construction of the line means that it is not visually or audibly intrusive. For those who do not take my word for it, I invite them to visit Kent to see and hear for themselves.
Those concerned about the environmental impact about HS2 also need to question the environmental costs of the potential alternatives if we do not build it. What would be the cost of more lorries on the roads and possible new A-roads and motorways if freight traffic is increasingly forced off the railways because of a lack of capacity?
Finally, let me make a broader point. HS2 need not be an ugly project. I have long argued that railway architecture can enhance the natural landscape. Consider the beauty of railway architecture such as the Forth Bridge, the Ribblehead viaduct and Brunel's bridges and tunnels. My challenge to the planners of HS2 is not to make it a concrete monstrosity but to design a route of beauty, which showcase the very best of British design and engineering.
In conclusion, many of arguments made against HS2 are not new. We have a basic choice to make. We can adopt the traditional short-termist British view, suck our teeth and conclude "it's too difficult, guv". Or we can approach this with confidence and optimism and design HS2 in a way which will deliver lasting benefits for generations.
In the course of my research into rail travel, I came across this comment from 1831 from an opponent of the development of the railways:
"On the very line of this railway, I have built a comfortable house; it enjoys a pleasing view of the country. Now judge, my friend, of my mortification, whilst I am sitting comfortably at breakfast with my family, enjoying the purity of the summer air, in moment my dwelling, once consecrated to peace and retirement, is filled with dense smoke of foetid gas; my homely, though cleanly, table covered with dirt; and the features of my wife and family almost obscured by a polluted atmosphere. Nothing is heard but the clanking iron, the blasphemous song, or the appalling curses of the directors of these infernal machines."
Imagine where we would be today if we had heeded his dire warnings and never built the railway?