High Speed Rail – White Paper Response
Key issues to be resolved:
That means the plans must:
3. Lord Adonis
All three main parties are now committed to building some kind of high speed line from London to the north of England and possibly on to Scotland. This has not always been the case. As recently as December 2006, a Government report by Rod Eddington on transport and economy rejected the idea, saying there was no evidence that major new rail infrastructure was needed and that big projects like high speed rail were answers looking for a problem. The 2007 Rail White Paper mentioned High Speed Rail, but only as one option for solving future overcrowding, and pushed any consideration of it into the future.
This position started to change when the Channel Tunnel Rail Link to St Pancras opened in November 2007 as “High Speed 1”. People could now see a high speed link in reality, and this began a debate about the UK lagging behind other countries where high speed trains and lines are widespread. In particular Japan and France have been building new high speed lines since the 1970s, and Italy, Germany and Spain have more recently been constructing new lines.
But just because other countries have high speed lines and we now have a bit of one doesn’t explain why a new high speed line now has all party support. The three reasons for this can be summed up as capacity, aviation and Adonis.
Despite all the criticisms levelled at the rail network, its use has been growing rapidly. Even during the recession, passenger and freight use has stayed remarkably buoyant. Many lines and trains are full - most notably (and something London-based politicians find hard to credit), commuter trains round cities in the north of England are massively overcrowded, some on lines once earmarked for closure, The main lines between London, Midlands and the north are already full of trains, both passenger and freight, and there are now intricate negotiations between Network Rail and the different train operators to find ways of fitting in all the trains they want to run on these lines.
As the White Paper points out, there are investments planned or happening to tackle some of the bottlenecks – new signalling, longer trains, extra tracks – but the railway planners forecast that if growth resumes after the recession, all this will be used up within 10-15 years. This is true even on the West Coast Main Line from London to Glasgow, only recently modernised. So the question of how to provide for growth in rail use is becoming an urgent one, and new lines have emerged as a favourite way forward. And if new lines are to be built, making them high speed is seen as inevitable – but the need for capacity is what makes the case for spending money. Additional capacity is the main reason the White Paper gives for why a high speed rail is being considered – but reduced journey times and “connectivity” between cities are also seen as important.
The White Paper uses a broader argument that is not just about rail; it says that high speed lines are the best way of dealing with future inter-city travel of all sorts, and rules out expansion of motorways or domestic aviation. However, aviation is another key to the high speed rail support.
The expansion of aviation, and in particular proposals for a third runway at Heathrow and a second runway at Stansted, is controversial and has been strongly opposed by environmental groups.
The Government is committed to supporting these and other expansion plans (and the White Paper restates this), whereas the Conservatives are committed to oppose the expansion of Heathrow and the other major south east airports. As part of this, the Conservatives announced at their 2008 party conference support for a high speed line from London to Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and possibly the north east and Scotland. They have had a lot of work done on how to finance this and ways to progress it.
3. Lord Adonis
The Government’s rather cool approach to high speed rail abruptly changed with the arrival at the Department for Transport of Lord Adonis, first as Minister for State and then as Transport Secretary. Lord Adonis is probably one of the very few Transport Secretaries who has actively wanted the job (not for nothing was the “Yes Minister” episode on transport entitled “The Bed of Nails”) – he is very keen on railways and has always wanted to pursue high speed rail. Under his leadership, the Department for Transport has become a hotbed of rail development. Adonis famously toured the country’s railways and has imposed new tighter specifications for franchises, the East Coast franchise has been temporarily renationalised, funding has been committed for electrification and for cycle hubs at stations and so on.
The Government announced its support for a Heathrow 3rd runway in January 2009 – but at the same time Adonis secured agreement to set up a separate grouping, “High speed 2”, with a brief to develop in detail the business case and route for a high speed line from London to Birmingham, with options for links to Heathrow and intermediate stations. HS2 was also asked to look at options for high speed lines north of Birmingham. Their report (which is over 1000 pages) was handed to the Government at the end of 2009 and has been published alongside the White Paper.
Adonis has been at pains to try to get widespread support for his proposals. The Liberal Democrats and many local authorities are on board, but the Conservatives are not playing. They are keen to differentiate their proposal, and are supporting a proposal from the engineering consultants Arups for the line to go directly via Heathrow. However, Adonis has responded to this by getting Lord Mawhinney, Conservative transport secretary in the 1990s, to advise on whether there should be a new link to and station at Heathrow.
The White Paper is a long and detailed look at the issues surrounding High Speed Rail – and it is accompanied by even more detailed reports from HS2. Essentially it says:
- The detailed proposals for the London-Birmingham route
- The strategic case for high speed rail in the UK
- The Government’s proposed strategy for an initial core high speed network
The Government’s proposal on high speed rail looks attractive: future growth in inter-city demand should be by rail rather than expanding motorways or through domestic aviation. But it does raise a number of issues.
Will it take funding away from existing transport?
It is unclear how the high speed network is to be paid for. £30bn is a lot of money. Options for funding high speed rail are suggested in the HS2 report – such as ring-fencing existing or extra aviation taxes, and these need to be explored.
Campaign for Better Transport and other environmental groups will want to ensure that a high speed line does not suck funding away from the existing rail network and other everyday transport. To some extent the French experience has been of gleaming new high speed lines and trains with a shabby conventional rail network, especially outside the cities.
There have been some indications that the funding for high speed line construction will be treated as separate and extra to transport budgets, but even if this is the case, the preparatory costs (land purchase, blight payments, getting a bill through Parliament) could be huge. At a time of public spending cuts, these costs could lead to service cuts and fare rises on the rest of public transport, or to cuts in road maintenance (no money for filling-in potholes).
There remains a need to keep spending money to enhance existing public transport: lower fares, new trains, electrification, new or reopened lines and stations and extra and better rail and bus services. High speed rail must not detract from these.
On the evidence of the report, the high speed network as proposed by the government will be marginal on carbon.
The White Paper rightly points out that high speed rail is better than road or air travel in terms of carbon emissions, but it will involve a lot of carbon emissions and environmental damage in its construction and on some figures high speed trains can be almost twice as polluting as conventional trains because of the extra energy they use.
Overall, assuming some mode switch and lower carbon electricity, the HS2 report suggests that the London-Birmingham section will result in CO2 impacts ranging from a reduction of 25 million tonnes up to an increase of 27m tonnes over 60 years.
However, being marginal or neutral is not good enough. The Climate Change Act requires a reduction in CO2 of 80% by 2050 and spending £30bn for no reduction in CO2 or even an increase raises questions about value for money.
Part of the problem comes from the assumptions made by the Government about the role of high speed rail. The emphasis is on improved connectivity, reduced journey times and the inevitability of increased demand linked to increased economic growth. This link has in fact already been broken for passenger traffic – car traffic has fallen relative to GDP since the mid 1990s – and new communications technology will help this further. The Government’s proposals also assume that airport expansion plans, like the third runway at Heathrow, go ahead.
So the question is whether high speed rail is about generating lots of new journeys, or shifting existing ones from air and road to rail. Campaign for Better Transport and other environmental groups argue that the environmental benefits depend on what else the Government does. If a new line were to be built explicitly as part of a package of policies to produce modal shift to rail, carbon emissions could be reduced by more than the Government thinks.
The traffic is there – there are a lot of short distance flights and lots of longer distance car journeys (rail’s share of Birmingham-Manchester travel is at present just 4%). If high speed rail is powered by renewable energy and comes with, say, taxation on short distance flights, affordable rail fares and a moratorium on new runways (especially at Heathrow) and new/wider motorways, then it will overall be better environmentally than if it is built along with new roads and runways and high and increasing fares. Upgraded services for local passengers and freight on the existing lines to be relieved by the high speed network could get further traffic off the roads.
Even with these, though, it’s not clear that this package will be the best value way of cutting carbon emissions.
This again depends on what else the Government does. This requires:
The impacts on other cities will also depend on whether the high speed line will be integrated into the rest of the rail network, and whether there will be through trains to HS1 and the rest of Europe. For example, will a train from say Exeter to Newcastle be able to use the high speed line for some of the journey, or will the line be reserved only for specific trains to and from London?
There is deep concern about the proposed routing of the line through the Chilterns, which are an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and contain many designated wildlife habitats; impacts further north in the vale of Aylesbury and Warwickshire will also raise concern.
Alternative routings taking the line parallel to the M1 have already been suggested by some engineers. The Government will have to justify its choice of route and why it has not used existing transport corridors, and will have to consider a full range of options for mitigation and compensation such as tunnelling, noise barriers and landscaping. Some of this has already been offered and further tunnelling will be a matter for negotiation.
All parties have said they want high speed rail to be affordable. In practice, however, the temptation to further jack-up fares as part of the financing may be too great. Government policy is already to have fares rises at 1% above inflation per year for ordinary rail services, but South East Trains travellers are paying RPI+3% to finance the local services on High Speed 1 between London and Kent. Campaign for Better Transport is already running a campaign to reduce train fares which has been getting a lot of support from MPs of all parties.
That means the plans must:
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