The Lib Dem transport strategy “Building a Fast Track Britain” agreed in 2008 is an excellent document which is well worth re-reading. Lib Dem proponents of HS2 constantly refer back to this strategy when declaring their support for the project.
But High Speed Rail (HSR) does not necessarily mean HS2. On the day that the Public Accounts Committee publishes yet another damning indictment of the project, it’s worth making clear that HS2 is certainly NOT in line with Lib Dem transport strategy:-
- It will not help to reduce carbon emissions. Its ultra-high speed specification will result in much higher emissions than a conventional railway line – energy requirements increase with the square of speed.
- It will not divert significant traffic from road and air. Demand forecasts for HS2 are mostly based on switching from conventional rail and ‘new journeys’.
- It will not be an ‘extensive high speed network’, but a single line (albeit with two northern ‘legs’).
- It will be funded directly by the taxpayer, rather than the methods set out in the 2008 document for creating a Future Transport Fund (e.g. lorry road user charging, domestic flight surcharges, motorway and trunk road pricing).
We have got ourselves into a situation where the Lib Dems are supporting an uneconomic project which is not compatible with Lib Dem transport strategy, by assuming, without any critical examination, that the HS2 proposal inherited from the previous Labour Government should be continued, just because it had the magic words ‘high speed rail’ on the tin.
In fact, the UK already has extensive high speed rail. The EU definition of HSR (Directive 96/48/EC Appendix 1) includes ‘specially upgraded High Speed lines equipped for speeds of the order of 200 km/h’, i.e. 125 mph. The Virgin Pendolino trains on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) run at up to 125 mph, and could increase to their design maximum of 140 mph if further improvements to the track were made.
Journey times between our regional centres already compare favourably with other European countries. The UK is a relatively small, crowded country – we don’t need ultra-high speed trains which can’t stop at intermediate stations. What we do need is the rest of the inter-city rail network brought up to WCML standards and beyond, through electrification and track and station improvements. We need to optimise the capacity of the WCML through further improvements which have already been identified. If, ultimately, we do end up needing a brand new line to relieve capacity on the WCML, then let it follow existing transport corridors and be routed via Heathrow.
The wording in the 2008 document was sensible and pragmatic: ‘Commit to building a high speed rail network in Britain, with an initial link from St. Pancras to Heathrow. This would be done in stages: building one section, acquiring a revenue stream, then resuming building work’.
It’s time for the Lib Dems to scrap their support for HS2 and go back to the party strategy agreed in 2008.
* John Whitehouse represents Kenilworth Abbey division on Warwickshire County Council