In the two centuries since the Golden Age of British railways, from the opening of the Stockton and Darlington line in 1825, Stephenson’s Rocket and the railway boom of the 1840s, Britain has tumbled from the position of being the envy of the world, to lagging sadly behind. The busiest sections of our old Victorian railways are now struggling to cope as the railways become increasingly popular. As anyone who travels regularly by train as I do will know, the West Coast Main Line, East Coast and Midland Main Lines are already creaking at the seams during peak times, and this is only going to get worse over the next twenty years. Yet elsewhere, from Japan’s network of Bullet trains, Germany’s 11 ICE lines, and China’s system which currently boasts the world’s longest high-speed railway line and plans to invest £248bn to complete a 10,000-mile network by 2020, the world has gone high speed.
That’s why it’s so important that the Government is pressing ahead with High Speed 2. This commits us and future governments to transforming our national rail network and providing a national infrastructure that delivers for every part of the country.
I don’t think enough has been made of High Speed 2’s importance to the north. It will be the first major railway to be built north of London in 120 years. This isn’t a railway that will just shuttle business travellers between Birmingham and London, and it’s not about getting to Birmingham twenty five minutes faster. It’s an essential part of our strategy to rebalance the economy. It will halve the journey times between some of our great northern cities: between Birmingham and Leeds, for example, transforming the north into a single economic area. Together with the substantial investment we’ve already announced into the Northern Hub, High Speed 2 will free up capacity on existing lines which will make local journeys for many quicker and more frequent. It will bring in jobs and prosperity for future generations: around world, high speed rail has a glittering record of supporting economic redevelopment. For example, Lyon in France is now at the heart of 5.3 million square feet of office space and 20,000 jobs. And it will connect the north to mainland Europe via High Speed One and the Eurotunnel.
And it’s not just rail links that will benefit. All of our transport links between the North and South are in desperate need of improvement. By shifting an estimated 9 million journeys from road to rail and 4.5 million from air to rail, HS2 will help to ease road congestion, reduce some of the pressure on our airports and cut carbon emissions in the process.
Today’s announcement, on top of the significant package of investment we have already committed to – the biggest investment in rail since the Victorian era – signals an end to the patch-and-mend approach of previous governments, and an end to too many trains squeezed onto too little railway. We should be shouting it from the rooftops: the Liberal Democrats were the first party to commit to high speed rail, and we’re delivering on it now we’re in Government.
* Norman Baker is the MP for Lewes, and Minister in the Department of Transport