Julian Huppert MP writes… Liberal Democrats have convinced other parties about High Speed Rail

Today’s announcement that the Government will go ahead with HS2 is a huge win for the Liberal Democrats, the first UK party to commit itself to a national high speed railway.

Back in 2004 we announced ambitious plans for the UK’s first high speed network. We argued that faster train lines would reduce carbon emissions in the long-term and ensure a reliable train service available to all.

In contrast it took Labour 13 years of Government to announce their commitment to a high speed network, conveniently not in time to actually start doing anything about it. And while the Conservative commitment to high speed rail should be applauded, we should never forget that the Liberal Democrats were the earliest and most radical proponents.

As I argued in October, the case for high speed rail is more compelling now than ever before. The crux of this argument rests on the need for extra capacity on existing train lines, rather than just the speed which the new line will deliver.

Since I wrote that article, Network Rail had carried out its own feasibility study of the alternatives to HS2. With the West Coast Mainline due to reach capacity in just over a decade, and the East Coast Mainline starting to feel the pinch, they sought to assess how the railway network could meet future passenger demand.

They found that the alternative schemes to HS2 would “deliver some short-term capacity benefits, but they would come at a heavy price in terms of disruption to passengers and the wider economy”. Longer trains and more services on a single line can only get you so far before the cost of upgrading, and the impact this has on service reliability, begins to undermine the purpose of the upgrades.

High speed rail, however, will solve our capacity crisis in the long term, take cars off the road, protect existing freight lines and increase freight capacity, reduce journey times, create a realistic alternative to domestic air travel and provide better services on the existing train routes. And all of this can be done without the kind of disruptive works which normally occur when train lines are upgraded.

It is simply no longer feasible for any politician to pretend that we can rely on two main train lines to connect the North and the South.

High Speed rail is not just about cutting journey times by 30, 60 or even 90 minutes. Liberal Democrats believe that public transport should be sustainable, reliable and available to all, and the only way we can achieve this is through an effective railway network that serves the country as a whole. For me, high speed rail is the only option which will allow us to meet all of those criteria. There is still more to do of course, and we must keep the pressure up for further stages that go further north, as far as Scotland.

Liberal Democrats were convinced of these arguments in 2004, we’re convinced of them now and, for an added bonus, we’ve convinced the other parties too.

* Julian Huppert was the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge from 2010-15

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28 Comments

  • £32Billion (if the history of such estimates are considere,d the cost will be nearer £100B) to cut 30 mins off a journey….14 years of disruption…massive subsidies and exorbitant ticket prices…( the Adam Smith Institute said the route was likely to become a ‘major burden on the public finances in the years to come’)

    Trumpeting this as a great LibDem achievement when other posters are despairing over the cuts in welfare and to the disabled….Get your priorities right!t

  • Last year I went from the South East of England to Scotland 4 times. Three times I drove and once I flew. I didn’t take the train because it was far more expensive. I’m as big a geek as the next person when it comes to tech, but HS2 leaves me cold because it ignores the many and varied problems with the rest of the rail network and the cost to use it will be too high. Even if the HS2 is heavily used, the money could be better spent elsewhere.

  • Julian. Last time I looked, HS2 is only London-Birmingham – a route which already has 2 main lines and 2 branch routes connecting it.

    Of course high speed rail is a laudable goal, but this is the wrong place to start when our existing high speed lines fail in the wrong kinds of weather, or when HS1 outprices average travellers from its routes, or when proper connection of the North to the South following this plan is decades away. When Network Rail has so much vested interest in a centralised new construction work in the South and West Midlands, it must come as no surprise that its feasibilty study discounts the alternatives.

  • ………..i.e. longer trains) but at the cost of freight (who would have no additional capacity but rather shorter slots on the network………

    Please explain how ‘longer trains’ affect freight?

  • Thanks for that information, JB.
    However, you neglected to address that the much higher speeds of HS2 will mean that freight can only operate for a short period overnight and will mostly run on existing infrastructure….I don’t believe that over a 24 hour period there is not ‘spare’ capacity, on an upgraded system to absorb the extra carriages which will only be required at ‘peak’ times.
    As far as cost effectiveness goes the whole project was deemed not to be financially viable. This promptied Philip Hammond to state ” HS2 does not need to be financially viable: If we used financial accounting we would never have any public spending, we would build nothing “

  • Sorry to patronise you Julian, but plans for a UK-wide high speed rail network predate 2004 by several decades, but you were probably still at school and so they passed you by, as has obviously the long term implications of the rapid evolution of digital communications since 1995, but then you are just a liitle to old to be part of the Facebook generation who in the main will the one’s running business in 2026 …

    What you and other supporters of HS2 fail to see is that the world is changing very rapidly and that many of the benefits of HS2 can be achieved by other means that are far more cost effective and socially inclusive.

    Yes we may have a road and rail network that is either operating at, or will reach capacity in the next few years. However, that doesn’t automatically make it a ‘crisis’, it actually becomes an evolutionary force, I believe Margaret Thatcher referred to these as ‘Market forces’.

    In the first instance we start to get rid of unnecessary journeys – we saw this effect when petrol jumped nearly 50p a litre in the summer of 2008, when the roads suddenly became less crowded, but the economy didn’t implode. In the second instance we changed behaviours, so businesses began to re-organise to enable (some) people to work from home, to use video conferencing and other communication tools to enable virtual team working, business also re-locate – they may still retain the City address but most of the staff are now out in cheaper business park offices etc. (Obviously, in 2008 the price of petrol fell and pressure for change reduced and as a society we largely reverted to our established behaviours…)

    It can be seen that the above is happening across the whole of the UK and not just in and between London and Birmingham and will continue to happen right up to 2026. Throw into this: Universal broadband (100mbps, £100pa, 100% coverage) by 2020 – achievable at a fraction of the cost of HS2 both in terms of construction and operation, along with the politicians actually doing something useful and screw the lid down tight on immigration, and I doubt there will be a national road/rail capacity problem in 2026.

  • A massively expensive vanity project. The money could be better spent on 100 other local and regional transport schemes country-wide; more popular and more cost-effective than this answer to a problem that doesn’t really exist. I am hugely disappointed that we, as a Party, are pushing it.

  • Barking mad.

    If capacity’s the issue, why not simply re-open the Great Central London Line (Marylebone -Aylesbury-Rugby-Leicester-Nottingham-Sheffield). Sections of it are still in use and large sections of the track-bed still exist. All you need to do is put a few bridges back in place, knock down a few buildings (almost certainly far fewer than required for HS2) and you’ve got yourself a mainline that can be used for freight – how could the nimbys object to a railway line being built on a railway line? Parts of it in Leicester have been demolished within the last couple of years though, which just sums up the stupidity of transport policy – proposing a new mainline north fom London whilst still demolishing the last inter-city mainline to be built in the UK that went to much the same places. It was also built to the continental loading guage in anticipation of through-traffic to a channel tunnel.

  • Richard Shaw 10th Jan '12 - 5:58pm

    I welcome HS2 and its future extensions. Building a new line is much more cost effective and less disruptive than yet another upgrade to the WCML. I hope the future extensions will include Sheffield, via the Woodhead route (which was a two-line electrified line and whose trackbed is predominantly clear) if possible. If the money was to be used instead to reopen lines closed in the 50s and 60s or upgrade freight-only routes then they would face the same protests from those who would prefer such lines to remain dormant. Those concerned about the destruction of the beauty of the countryside need only look at the Settle & Carlisle or any number of lines where the presence of a railway sits elegantly in the landscape, even enhancing it. The people of the Chilterns, etc. do not hold the monopoly to those areas, it belongs to the nation, and as such, unless there are serious environmental concerns beyond “i don’t like the view” or “my house isn’t as over-priced as it once was”, it should be used for the good of the nation as a whole.

  • I’m not against spending on important infrastructure but I can’t help feeling this is at the expense of other regions.

    I live and run a small business in Plymouth and would love the quality of transport links currently between Birmingham and London. The M5 ends at Exeter, most of Devon and all of Cornwall does not have a motorway. The train service is terrible, I can travel by a 125 step through scooter more quickly between Plymouth and Exeter than I can by train. Our airport has just shut. In summer this is a massive issue due to the number of holiday makers. They’re a vital part of our regional economy but I cannot think of another part of Europe where such a key holiday destination is so badly served in terms of transport.

    Tomorrow I will get on the Train to Swindon, it will be full and slow. I can do the journey in 2.5 hours by car, it will take 3.5, by car it costs me around £30 – £35 in fuel (I have a pretty green car), it will cost me £64 by train. We employee just under 70 people and provide services throughout the UK, if more than one is travelling to a single location there is no incentive to use the rail network either in cost or efficiency. To get to Preston and back just before Christmas for a business meeting I spent over 14 hours on the train. Between Exeter and Totnes the trains have to crawl along the coast for a section as apparently they are affected by the Sea, crossing the wonderful but out of date Brunel bridge at Saltash they barely move.

    The Midlands and North West need a better service but spare a thought for those us who are trying to get the economy moving in the less sexy parts of the UK. I have a fear this major project will destroy any chance of the Westcountry receiving the investment needed to allow business to thrive. The playing field will just get even less level…

  • It does seem odd to be talking about increasing capacity out of Euston, when the line into Euston is one of the least overcrowded in the country. (More than 10x as many people have to stand going into each of Waterloo and London Bridge each morning). Surely we should concentrate on improving the most heavily used lines, particularly as some of them are slower now than they were in the 1950s? (see my chapter in Hood, Margetts and 6, Paradoxes of Modernisation)

  • David… Posted 10th January 2012 …I agree a ‘vanity project’….
    Other posts, on schools, disability, etc. lament the lack of cash. (one poster was scorned for daring to imply that £275K extra spent on keeping classes below 30 was ‘small beer’. The response was, “In the current financial climate £275K is a ‘staggering figure’)
    Yet, on here “£umpteen Billions” are OK…remarks like “Let’s ensure the timescale is shorter”, pass without comment; I well remember the last time a major project was completed ‘on time/on budget’..Prince Phillip ‘bagged’ four flying pigs.
    Wrong priority..wrong project…

  • Alas, politicians, especially in our party, tend to discover a horrible combination of their inner Big Spender and trainspotter whenever shiny new rail projects are mentioned.

    Only an unfavourable comparison of ourselves with Europe has been lacking, though maybe I missed it.

    Sympathy to our Devonian colleague whose arguments made a lot of sense.

  • juliet solomon 11th Jan '12 - 9:35am

    Just saying that this will boost the economy is disingenuous. I thought we were increasinly supposed to be entering the information age, when the transport which is required is cybertransport. Increasingly people should be able to work (sit at a computer terminal) from places near their homes, thus lessening the need for transport.

    If the government really did want to help the environment, that would be the way to “help” the economy, not ripping up much of the country to cover it in tracks.

    I have yet to see a complete cost-benefit analysis that actually demonstrates how HS2 will “help the economy to recover”; wouldl be very grateful if somebody could lead me to that spot.

  • I welcome yesterday’s announcement on HS2. However it is disappointing that the legislation for the route to Birmingham is being done before the route to Manchester and Leeds. Whilst I understand the need to build the line in stages I cannot see the reasoning why Manchester and Leeds cannot be dealt with at the same time as Birmingham.
    Having seen the way objectors tried to stop CROSSRAIL I see no benefit in splitting the legisation in two – it will merely give more NIMBY’s more opportunities to object.

  • One of the arguments that has frequently been cited in the case for HS2 is the ‘lack of capacity’ in the existing rail infrastructure, I believe this has arisen from a negative reading of various reports.

    Lets look at the Network Rail report, what does this really tell us about the existing rail network? I suggest it tells us:
    1. The existing rail asset is being operated near to capacity and with no major investment will support demand for another decade.
    2. With some investment it will have sufficient capacity to support forecasted demand until at least 2026 (Note in the HS2 documents the plan is to reduce capacity on WML).
    3. With more significant and disruptive adjustments it will have sufficient capacity to support forecasted demands beyond 2034 (remember the HS2 documents confirm that there isn’t a capacity issue north of Birmingham until at least 2034; if there was then running HS trains on WML would of been dismissed).

    As a businessman and shareholder, this is music to my ears – the asset is being fully utilised! We have an asset that with relatively small incremental investment will satisfy demand for at least the next 25 years. As there is strong demand and the price and service can be adjusted to improve profitability and performance rather than to create demand. My only concern is the effect the disruption will have on the reliable and profitable operation of the business. However, once you realise that much of this investment will be necessary just to maintain the reliable operation of the existing infrastructure over this timeframe (remember the plan isn’t to scrap the existing rail network), you just accept the disruption as a fact of life.

    As we can see there is no real lack of capacity in the forseeable future. The problem is one of how to provide the incremental increases in capacity whilst minimising the disruption to services on the existing infrastructure.

  • David Evershed 11th Jan '12 - 3:13pm

    As every day goes by the cost estimates increase and the benefits decrease – and it is already in the ‘low value’ category.

    By the time we get to a draft bill there will be no business case at all.

    So it is not going to happen. Best to save the £750m preparatory costs now.

  • Vincent Nolan 11th Jan '12 - 7:53pm

    Party policy may be in favour of a High Speed Rail in principle, but the specific propsal for HS2 is uneconomic and will increase not reduce carbon emissions.

    Ther are capacity problems in many parts of the rail network and they all need to be addressed. HS2 will divert investment away from the northern Hub, ekectification of other main lines and reduction of overcrowding on commuter routes. Network Rail are not an ‘independent’ authority on capacity problems; they are an interested party. They and the train operating companies are heavily criticised in the McNulty Report (2011) for failing to make good use of existing rail assets and resorting too readily to capital investment to solve operating problems. Hence the ‘por value foir money’ and heavy taxpayer subsidies to the rail industry.

    We are supposed to be a Party which bases its policy on evidence. The factual evidence is overwhelmingly against HS2. We should lead the call for genuinely independent evaluation of economic and environmental costs and benefits of HS2, not indulge in self-congratulatory euphoria!

    Vincent Nolan

  • John Carlisle 12th Jan '12 - 8:31pm

    HS2 will do he LibDem reputation no good at all. It is the wrong solution to a need that has never been expressed by the majority of users. it will be far too late to address the overcrowding, and that is something that really annoys people, and rubbishes the reputations of politicians . The longer trains and more, and more comfortable, rolling stock is an solution now, will give jobs now, and will make the LibDems look good NOW.
    Think the whole things through as a system, from home back to home, and you will get a completely different picture. it is time we became a lot better at system thinking.

  • The basic problem with HIgh Speed 2 is thast it isn’t really very high speed. Our vVictorian Railways have lasted over 170 years and look like going on another 100. In this context we should build the fastest railway possible, cut the most journey time possible and really put rail in contention on journey times.

    Speeds of up to 360 mph have been demonstrated on other high speed networks, whilst 260 to 300 mph are scheduled in service in Asia. HS2 promises up to 250mph on the fastest parts of the line – but over the whole of the journey will a 20 min time saving affect the choice of car or train? The saving is small so that it will depend where in Birmingham / London you are travelling to.

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