By Mike Katz
Here’s a startling fact. There are 3,480 miles of high-speed railway lines in mainland Europe with a further 2,160 miles under construction and 5,280 miles planned for the future. In Britain, despite the fact that we invented the passenger railway, we only have 68 miles in operation.
Much of the current debate on high-speed rail (HSR) is about the route for the first bit. The Tories and the Lib Dems have their own spat about who has the most detailed plans. Labour should raise its sights higher and start talking about the need for a whole high-speed network, to equip our economy for the new century and beyond.
Yesterday, Greengauge 21 – a group of transport experts who have long been campaigning for high-speed rail – launched by far the most comprehensive report presenting the case for HSR. As this says, there are three strong reasons for such a network: to provide sufficient higher quality transport capacity across the nation; to stimulate a more efficient economy and to reduce carbon emissions.
And now is the time to do it. “The longer a decision to proceed is deferred, the longer we shall need to spend inefficiently on a make-do and mend basis on an overcrowded transport network,” as the Greengauge authors succinctly put it.
What will it mean in practice? Journey times will be slashed – getting from London to Manchester will take only an hour and a quarter, saving almost an hour. The time from the capital to Newcastle will be halved.
But more than that, HSR will give a real economic boost to our regions and nations – more than £10 billion to the north-west and nearly £20 billion to Scotland (net present value at 2002 prices, according to Greengauge21).
To lay my cards on the table, I work for a new campaign called HSR\UK which has brought together 11 city councils across Britain, of all political hues, who all want to see this network become a reality. They all understand that parochial lobbying or regional hand-wringing won’t construct a network which will go to any city, let alone theirs. And don’t forget that a whole network will deliver faster journeys between cities (say, across the Pennines), as well as to the capital.
And this new economic infrastructure would be green. The entire high speed network could be around 1,500km long with capacity for 178million passengers each year. It would attract around 30m passengers a year from domestic air travel and 13 million from roads onto the rails.
The case for HSR is mounting. SERA is launching a pamphlet entitled ‘Labour’s case for high-speed rail’ at Conference. The Labour Transport Group, is seeking views on what transport policy should be in our next manifesto – with HSR in the vanguard.
Labour has made great strides in this area under our current Transport Secretary, Lord Adonis, who has set up the HS2 company to deliver a detailed business case for the next high-speed route at the end of the year. But we need to demonstrate that we can set our sights higher and focus on what the economy needs for the next 50 years, not just the next five.