Lord Adonis rather lets the cat out of his bag by accepting that a High Speed rail connection to Heathrow would do little to reduce the number of flights from the airport. This is commendably honest but rather undermines the case put forward by his boss, Geoff Hoon, for the railway as a green alternative to flying which was the rationale for including it in the announcement about the third runway.
In fact, a huge railway station under the airport with fast links to major conurbations might well encourage more people to use Heathrow and attract yet more flights to the hub rather than to regional airports. Given that Lord Adonis seems to accept there is little synergy between the high speed line and the airport, it is clear that the rail announcement was a hastily cobbled together package designed superficially to appease the environmentalist lobby.
This is demonstrated by the sketchy nature of the plans. The projected cost of £20bn is merely a guess and there will be enormous wrangles over the route and the environmental impacts, as there was over High Speed One which had to be placed in lengthy tunnels at enormous cost. And there are doubts even among high speed line supporters about whether routing a high speed line to Heathrow is a sensible move.
In reality, the commitment to examine the viability of a north south high speed line is little more than a belated adherence to the Labour party manifesto which previous transport ministers had ignored. It is also a response to the Tories’ who put Labour on the back foot by announcing their support for a line at the party conference last autumn.
The launch of the study is nonetheless welcome because the concept needs to be thoroughly examined not only from an economic point of view but an environmental one. It is by no means certain that a high speed line would be a green project. Quite apart from the fact that the line would require enormous amounts of resources and energy to build, it would lead to people travelling longer distances, as is happening with the first High Speed Line which will soon be running fast trains from Kent, encouraging commuters to live further from London. Labour should have commissioned such a study years ago, rather than letting the Conservatives make the running and crucially must go into it with an open mind in order to assess thoroughly the idea’s green credentials. As with the third runway, the odds against a high speed line ever being built remain high.