A long awaited sequel

Rosser4x3.jpgRichard Rosser looks forward to the Lords debates – today and beyond – on High Speed 2

Today sees the Second Reading of the High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Bill, which seeks to give the green light for the first stage of HS2 from London to Birmingham. The Bill started in the Commons in 2014 and due to the special nature of a hybrid bill, only received Third Reading in late March. In the intervening period, a special Select Committee of the Commons sat and heard over 1,500 petitions from those affected by the construction. There will shortly be a similar – albeit on a smaller scale – process in the Lords.

HS2 is a Labour project. In March 2010, we established the urgent need for increased capacity on our rail network. Since then, passenger numbers have grown by a third. Our case was based on the estimate that passenger demand would grow by 2.2% a year. Since the reality has been an average increase of more than 5%, the case for HS2 has grown stronger and more urgent over the past six years. Not only that, but high speed rail is part of a modern and global competitive economy.

Our existing main trunk north-south rail routes face serious capacity issues. The line from London to the East Midlands and Sheffield has been officially designated as ‘congested infrastructure’ and freight services are being turned away. The train operator on the main line from London to Leeds and Newcastle has said that the route faces track capacity limit.

The existing route with the most pressing capacity shortfall is the West Coast Main Line from London to Birmingham and Manchester. We have reached the practical limits of the existing infrastructure on a route where inter-city, commuter and freight services all compete for scare space. And where commuter services have already been cut back in the West Midlands and on the approaches to Manchester because of a lack of track capacity at key points.

The money for HS2 could of course, be spent instead on a conventional modernisation programme of the existing route. Leaving aside the some 2000 weekends of closures, diversions, misery and extended journey times for passengers, and very significant compensation payments for the train operators, such an upgrade would deliver less than half the additional capacity of a new line.

HS2 is also about improving our rail transport infrastructure in the Midlands and the North, as well as in London and the South-East. A testament to its national importance is the support from not just the leaders of Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield and Leeds, but also Liverpool, Newcastle and Glasgow.

Unsurprisingly, real concerns have been raised, not least before the Commons special Select Committee, about the impact of both the construction of the new route and on those communities and areas through which it will run. The latter not only includes the Chilterns but also the Euston area, where a comprehensive redevelopment of Euston station will be necessary.

Public ownership delivered record passenger satisfaction and punctuality scores on the East Coast Main Line and that successful model should be extended to HS2. At the very least there should be an option to run the services under public ownership, reflecting the provisions made in the Crossrail Act which had cross-party support.

This Bill, like many trains reaching their destination, has been a long time coming to the Lords. But as a project heralding a new era of rail travel in our country, I look forward to the debates ahead.

Lord Richard Rosser is Shadow Transport Minister in the House of Lords

Published 14th April 2016 

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