High speed rethink is good politics but still a fantasy

THE coalition Government is learning that being in power is a very different matter to opposition. Plans have to be properly formulated and ideas have to be more than mere musings. That’s why the Conservative concept for the proposed north-south high-speed line has been changed radically from the form it took in opposition.

The news that Philip Hammond, the Transport Secretary, has now agreed there should be a Y-shaped route rather than an S-shaped one crossing the Pennines marks a radical u-turn – but one that is eminently sensible. The Tories were the first to support plans for a north-south line when Theresa Villiers, then the shadow Transport Secretary, announced it at their annual conference exactly two years ago. However, they subsequently got into a muddle over the route that seemed to contrast with the Labour government’s suggestion merely for the sake of looking different.

Lord Adonis, the Labour Transport Secretary, persuaded his colleagues to support the construction of a new line – despite opposition from Alistair Darling – but then formulated a very coherent scheme based on a year-long study led by Sir David Rowlands, the former permanent secretary at the Department for Transport. It suggested that the main core of the line would link London with Birmingham and then branch out to Leeds and Manchester in a Y-shape.

The Tories wanted, instead, to run the line up to Birmingham and Manchester and then across the Pennines to Leeds. While the notion of extra rail capacity through the Pennines might have been welcome, the idea of an S-shape simply did not make sense. Nor did the Tory plan of running the main high-speed line via Heathrow, rather than straight up to Birmingham, and that has already been rejected by a committee chaired by the former Conservative Transport Secretary Lord Mawhinney.

In contrast to the solid basis of Labour’s scheme, the Tory plans, despite claims to the contrary, had very much a back-of-the-envelope feel to them. They were widely derided as impractical by transport analysts and were becoming something of an embarrassment to the Tory transport team.

What Mr Hammond has done, by ditching the Villiers concept, is some clever politics which will please large swathes of the country.Yorkshire, the North East and Scotland had felt rather left out of the high-speed plans because the deviation to reach Leeds

via Manchester meant that the new trains would be at best a mere 30 minutes faster than the existing service of just over two hours between Leeds and the capital.

Given that fares on the high-speed line are expected to be higher than on conventional services, few people would have used them to travel to London. Moreover, the S-shape route through Manchester and Leeds would have added 30 minutes to the journey time to London and Scotland, making it more difficult to attract air passengers, one of the principal aims of building the high-speed line.

At the moment, however, all this is about politics. There is still a very long way to go before the first high-speed line opens, let alone reaches Yorkshire. The current plans are that the line between London and Birmingham would be built first, at a cost variously estimated at between £20bn and £34bn. Determining the precise route, and obtaining planning permission would take well into the next Parliamentary term with 2017 the likely starting date for work – though the Tories have promised they could bring that forward by a year.

With an eight-year construction period, the first trains between London and Birmingham would not operate until 2025, although these would then run on conventional lines through to Leeds and Manchester. The branches connecting these two cities with Birmingham would take another 10 years to complete.

All this assumes that the funding is available. The Tories have suggested that there could be considerable private sector investment in the scheme but this would require Government guarantees or else it would be prohibitively expensive.

Supporters of the plan, such as Jim Steer, of the transport consultancy Steer Davies Gleave, reckon that the money would come from a different pot. Writing in the current issue of Rail magazine, he said that “some transport decisions are of such national significance and scale that when the decision is taken to proceed, they cannot be done within normal departmental spend levels”.

 Mr Steer is being optimistic at a time when Ministers are cutting back on Government spending. Even though major investment wouldnot be required on the high-speed line until 2016, already compensation is having to be paid to residents on the route, money that is in desperate short supply.

 Moreover, many of these are strong Tory supporters who are mounting fierce campaigns against the plans. By altering the scheme, Mr Hammond has cleverly ensured that Yorkshire is now included in the route of a high-speed line. Now he has to make sure that the biggest engineering project the country has ever seen is actually carried out, and is not just a fantasy

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