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High speed rail: The fast track debate

With a General Election looming, high speed rail looks set to take centre stage as the transport issue that will highlight differences between the main political parties. Report by Alexandra Wynne.

With the ever present threat of public spending cuts, debate surrounding a myriad of infrastructure projects is intense, with the question about how to pay for them to the fore.

While it may not prove to be an election winning issue, transport is an area where the main parties like to take ownership of − or fiercely object to − headline grabbing schemes.

Over the past year or so, the project most likely to divide politicians during transport electioneering was London’s £15.9bn Crossrail mega-rail scheme. For a time the Liberal Democrats had debated its benefits and each time it came up in the presence of most Tories it was met with something akin to indifference.

As its main backer − and in light of the others’ indecision − Labour looked like it would have the right to brand itself the party for investing in major transport infrastructure.

“We asked a small number of experts to take a briefing from HS2. We are not ruling out the HS2 proposals.”

Stephen Hammond, Shadow Transport Minister

But in late January, shadow chancellor George Osborne finally broke his silence on Crossrail, offering the Conservatives’ strongest backing yet, proclaiming “we support Crossrail” in the party’s A New Economic Model: Eight Benchmarks for Britain report.

Now another major rail scheme has stolen the limelight − the proposed extension of the UK’s high speed rail network and with it, the potential to connect into a Europe-wide super-railway.

Transport secretary Lord Adonis has stressed that while he is a clear champion of the scheme, the long lead in time for such a large network means it will need the full support of all the main political parties from inception to completion.

But, in the current political climate and with just a couple of months until the General Election, cracks in the union are beginning to appear. At NCE’s Roads Summit in January shadow transport secretary Theresa Villiers declared high speed rail to be the only transport issue that she would be fighting on.

Greengauge route

And just two weeks ago she made her first battle move by rejecting the chance to preview a report from government agency High Speed 2 (HS2), which details route options from London to Birmingham.

Adonis hit back, accusing Villiers of playing “cheap politics”. There were also reports that the Tories feared that perceived allegiance to such a scheme could prompt a voter backlash with concern that homes may be blighted by a new line.

Fighting back, shadow transport minister Stephen Hammond last month told NCE’s Future of High Speed Rail conference that he “firmly rejected” the allegations.

Appearing conciliatory, he said he believed the HS2 report would be of “high quality” and “useful”, particularly because it could feed into the Conservatives’ own studies.

“We are not ruling out [the HS2 proposals],” said Hammond. “We’ve asked a small number of experts to take a briefing from HS2.”

Conservatives route

But his positive remarks stopped there as it became clear the Tories preferred to highlight the differences between their approach and those of the other parties. Hammond added that the Conservatives did not want to be seen to be forming a “cosy” consensus on a route.

It is a clear political move made despite the knowledge that there could be repercussions. After her refusal to see the HS2 report, Villiers admitted that there was a risk that a newly elected Tory government’s review of such a scheme would likely mean delays to any proposed London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds high speed proposal.

Trying again to assuage further concern about the move, Hammond later backtracked, saying that following some “pretty serious discussions” he was confident construction could still be set to start in 2015, with the full scheme opening by 2027.

He also rejected suggestions that the Conservative plan to scrap the Labour-backed Infrastructure Planning Commission would create additional delays, labelling the suggestion “Labour Party spin”. He said that through existing National Policy Statements on transport and by creating between one and three hybrid bills to aid planning and consent he was confident that it would remain on track.

High speed rail debate

High speed rail has fast become a political issue

All of which leads the industry to question what it is the main parties would disagree on.

Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are all keen to back the principle of a high speed network − and one which could offer a real alternative to air travel and in particular create regeneration potential for UK cities that could be plugged into a European rail network.

The Liberal Democrats’ plan sets out a commitment to fund a high speed rail line from to the North of England and Scotland by setting up a Future Transport Fund. This would generate money by charging road hauliers for using motorways on a pay per mile basis with charges varying depending on emissions.

However, their plans stop short of a firm commitment on which cities would likely be on the network.

The Conservatives claim to hold a more advanced position. They were early supporters of a scheme and want the route to run from London, via Heathrow airport, to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.

It is known that Adonis will give detailed options for a London to Birmingham route with a potential spur connecting to Heathrow.

They are firmly opposed to Heathrow’s proposed third runway − supported by the current Labour administration. Instead the Tories are focused on a route that would run parallel to popular air connections.

In addition, Hammond believes private investment will play a key role in financing it. He says that while 80% of the predicted £19.7bn costs estimated for the Tory scheme should be covered by the public purse, the remainder would come from the private sector. However, he was keen to emphasise that despite private involvement he did not envisage any kind of private finance initiative arrangement being chosen as the appropriate funding mechanism.

But the Labour view is the one for which the industry is waiting and Adonis is set to reveal his response to the HS2 report shortly.

High speed rail

Most politicians agree with the high speed rail plans

He received the report at the end of last year and is expected to release his response in the next couple of weeks along with a White Paper.

Despite a reluctance to reveal any snippets in advance, it is known that Adonis will give detailed options for a London to Birmingham route with a potential spur connecting to Heathrow airport.

It will also outline plans for future links to Manchester and Scotland and there is much speculation that these would include lines running along east and west coast main line corridors to between London and Scotland. This is similar to the proposal put forward by high speed rail lobby group Greengauge 21.

One thing is clear, cross-party agreement on anything, including high speed rail, is unlikely before the election.

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