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High speed rail needs wider transport plan

High speed rail is affordable and deliverable in the UK but only as part of a wider integrated transport policy for the nation, former High Speed 2 (HS2) chairman Sir David Rowlands said this week.

Rowlands stood down as chairman of the HS2 company set up by the government to promote the project last month.

He said that although there was a very compelling business case for constructing high speed rail lines, the focus of the debate had to be on the new network’s ability to boost vital rail capacity across the UK’s transport network.

“High speed rail could be, and should be, a key part of a comprehensive integrated transport policy,” he said. “I think that high speed rail can be built − and ought to be built − but only as a part of a series of coherent policies, not as a substitute for them.”

Rowlands was speaking at a lunch organised by recruitment specialist Odgers’ Infrastructure Practice and attended by senior construction and rail industry executives.

“High speed rail could be, and should be, a key part of a comprehensive integrated transport policy.”

David Rowlands

He warned that the history of UK transport was littered with examples of building “too little, too late”, highlighting the ongoing lack of capacity now affecting the road and rail network and airports. High speed rail was an opportunity to make a step change.

“It is not so much about high speed travel as about providing capacity,” he said, pointing out that the West Coast Main Line route could be full by 2016. “High speed rail offers the opportunity to break through our capacity problems for at least a generation,” he said.

Despite stated political support for high speed rail, he warned that alone, it would not solve the UK’s transport problems.

“The proposals in all the main [political] parties’ manifestos fail abysmally,” he said, adding that they seemed to effectively contain for “high speed rail, being nice to cyclists and stopping the gas board digging up the roads”.

He also warned that an effective planning process was crucial to efforts to get high speed rail projects built. “No high speed railway will be built unless government finds a way of balancing the national need with the local interest.”

He highlighted his three tests to decide if the project would happen as:

  • How the project is sponsored − “the closer a project stays to ministers the more risk there is of interference,” he said
  • Whether there is a declared timetable, and whether there is accountability for any slippage
  • Where the money will come from and whether there is a year by year breakdown of expenditure.

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