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High speed rail: time for some serious political support

NCE editor Antony Oliver says the star politicians needed to push through major projects have not emerged yet

There was something slightly frustrating and ironic in the fact that I managed to read most of The Right Line, a new book cataloguing the difficult 30 year birth of High Speed One (HS1), during a seven hour train journey from Edinburgh and London last Sunday.

Had it not been for the three and a half hours I had to spend on a replacement bus service to Newcastle, my journey should have taken four and a half hours.

But it is ironic because dedicated high speed line between Edinburgh to London – let’s call it High Speed Two – would have cut the travel time to nearer three hours.

The book is by former Sunday Times and Economist journalist Nicholas Faith and is a recommended text for anyone interested in the bizarre world of the UK infrastructure planning process.

As Lord Heseltine, a key factor in turning the Arup route into reality, pointed out at the House of Commons book launch this week, the story is "an awful indictment of the way that we run this country."

He said: "We don't do vision in this country – we don't think long term and we don't think big." And John Prescott, the man who injected public cash to drag the project back from financial collapse in 1998, agreed.

The real worry is that despite the success story of the HS1 project the next major infrastructure project is politically far, far away.

For all the recent attempts to streamline the UK planning process – and OK, so far Crossrail seems to be clearing its hurdles, it is a glaring fact that infrastructure development in the UK comes down to one very simple fact: political patronage.

In short, the UK continues, to muddle through the infrastructure planning process.

But high speed rail works and the recent success of HS1 underlines the fact that extending high speed rail across the UK is the logical next step that would obviate the need for carbon hungry short haul air travel. An extension west to Heathrow then on to Birmingham, Manchester and Scotland is an obvious engineering proposition.

Yet as Arup director Mark Bostock, the man who conceived the HS1 route and then worked hard to convince 331 members of parliament that it was the right line, pointed out this week, the challenge is to work out which of our modern politicians will back it.

"The question is very simple," he said. "Who are the rising stars in government who have the vision to see beyond the four year cycle of government?"

The real problem for UK infrastructure seems to be that, they either don't exist or are yet to stick their heads over the parapet.

And for every person sitting, as I was last weekend, on a train or flying across the UK today, that is a big shame. The public could so easily have better.

Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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