Five tests for high speed rail
Lord Adonis made the much-anticipated announcement of plans for a UK high speed rail link today. Detailed plans for the route between London and Birmingham have been published for consultation, along with proposals for a £30bn “Y” shaped network also taking in Manchester, the East Midlands, Sheffield and Leeds, and there is future work to come on extending the lines to Scotland and the North East.
The TUC’s immediate reaction was to welcome the plans as bringing a great boost to the economy, jobs and skills, although we warned about the danger of neglecting the rest of the network. As we digest the government proposals and the enormous HS2 report, we will be looking to see whether the proposals can answer these five questions:
1. What does it mean for jobs and skills? The plans are predicted to create 10,000 jobs in the construction phase and 2,000 permanent jobs, helping to build and maintain the UK’s engineering, design, construction and manufacturing base – and all with a distinctly green tinge. However, this welcome news comes at the same time as Network Rail are threatening to lay off 1,500 maintenance workers in a cost-cutting drive. A robust maintenance and renewals base will be critical to the long term success of high speed rail, and losing the skills and experience of NR workers makes no sense.
2. What about the supply chain opportunities? There are huge potential benefits to British industry if – and it’s an important ‘if’ – the procurement for the high speed rail link is used effectively, and the right skills and capacity in the supply chain are developed in good time. Lord Adonis’ proposals include a section on New Industry, New Jobs which makes the right noises about an active role for government in supporting British manufacturers and suppliers to make sure they are well-placed to win contracts under the new project. Getting the detail right on this and maintaining an active government involvement will be essential.
3. Is it affordable? There are a number of elements to this question. Firstly, how much will the line cost, how will it be funded and what will be the return? The figures published today put the cost of the initial Y-shaped network at £30bn and predict benefits will outweigh costs by 2:1. But the government is going to carry out further work between to try to bring down the costs – how will this be done?
Secondly, will the network be affordable for ordinary travellers once it is up and running? It’s early days to be talking about ticket prices, but they will be vitally important: a network where prices are so high that only business travellers can afford to use it won’t bring the kind of economic benefits that supporters of high speed, including Lord Adonis, envisage.
The other big question under this heading is what will be the impact on the rest of the network? We know that in some other countries, notably France, investment in the high speed network has been at the expense of local and regional services which were left to decline, with poor-quality rolling stock and infrequent services. This must not be the case in the UK.
4. How will it benefit the English regions, Scotland and Wales? The benefits to the regions that will be on the initial Y-shape are clear and there is detailed and interesting work on this in the government’s paper. But what about Scotland, Wales and the regions that won’t be covered by the initial route? There will still be reductions in journey times because high speed trains can use the high speed track for some of the route, but there is a danger (identified by organisations including the High Speed North East coalition, British Chambers of Commerce and Greenguage 21) that places without a high speed connection will risk being left behind.
5. Is there the political will to deliver? I wrote about the need for a political consensus to deliver high speed rail a couple of weeks ago. There are clearly differences of opinion between the parties about how best to deliver high speed and they need to be debated. But once the distraction of the election is out of the way, all three main parties are going to have to work together to develop a long term consensus over the plans. There is no way that such a long term, expensive project can become a reality without it.