High speed rail to face axe?

The prospect of Britain getting high-speed TGV-style trains like France and Germany will be killed off this week by the Secretary of State for Transport, Alistair Darling.

Mr Darling will tell a conference of industry leaders in a keynote speech that Britain is simply not big enough to have a high-speed line as well as the existing rail and motorway links, and instead will suggest improvements to existing services as part of a 30-year plan for the railways. In its manifesto for the last election, Labour had committed to consider building a brand new high-speed line between London and the North using a new generation of trains that would slash journey times and reduce the demand for polluting domestic air travel.

Darling is under pressure from the Treasury and many of his own civil servants to ditch the idea which could cost £20bn or more and while not completely ditching the plan, will argue that the priority is to improve the existing network. Main lines such as the East Coast and Great Western will be improved to take 200 kph trains so that all major towns in England will be reachable for a business meeting from London without the need for an overnight stay.

Labour’s manifesto promised that there would be an investigation into a high speed line and the review by former BA boss Rod Eddington into Britain’s transport infrastructure also considered the idea. However, the Eddington report which was due to be published in the spring has now been postponed until June or even September, because of Treasury doubts about whether his plans are fundable.

Darling has privately been supportive of the idea of a high speed line but the Treasury has insisted the scheme is a non-starter because of the high cost to the public purse, even though the rail industry is convinced much of the scheme could be funded privately.

Darling will disguise the lack of commitment to progressing the high speed line by stressing that the government is committed to a 30 year strategy of improving the railways. However, this will include no new major projects and, instead, will concentrate on small scale enhancements to the existing network and improving line speeds by modernising the track and signalling.

Rail industry sources argue that the 40 per cent growth in railway usage over the past decade which shows no sign of slowing down means that the existing network simply cannot cope and the high speed line is necessary just to provide extra capacity. Adrian Lyons, director general of the Railway Forum, said: ‘Just tarting up the network is not enough. It means demand for use domestic air travel and which means that there will be a need for new runways and airports, which are far more environmentally damaging than railways.’Labour’s plans for road pricing would also increase demand for rail travel.

The delays over progressing the high speed concept will be pounced on by the opposition who have been hounding Labour over a series of schemes that have been scrapped or delayed, including tram projects in Leeds, Liverpool and Portsmouth, and Thameslink 2000 which is supposed to relive congestion on the network’s most crowded commuter line.

Chris Grayling, the Conservative transport spokesman, said: ‘The trouble with all of this is that the government keeps on making pronouncements and not following them through. They have broken promise after promise. They launched the idea of a high speed line in a blaze of publicity and are now quietly dropping it. Where is the vision?’

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