The announcements by Secretary of State Geoff Hoon on 15th January mark an important milestone: all of the major political parties are now agreed that Britain needs high-speed rail.
Coupled with the news that emerged later that any ideas about a programme of motorway widening (M1, M6, M62) have been dropped, it becomes clear that Ministers have made their minds up on two of the key issues for the national transport system.
It is to be the rail network rather than the road network that will supply the next increment of capacity, and the next quantum shift in capability too. A real policy turning point, indeed.
Sceptics will say that the only commitment is to undertake studies into high-speed rail, but the Secretary of State’s announcement will have had every word cleared by (amongst others) HM Treasury.
This new position cannot now be dropped without accusations of a policy U-turn.
Government is setting up High Speed Two as a government company to progress what it has identified as a priority first stage of high-speed rail, a route from London to Birmingham and onwards towards the North West, and with some kind of facility to serve Heathrow.
This closely replicates the ideas advanced in Greengauge 21's report of June 2007 ("High Speed Two: the Next Steps").
As Geoff Hoon revealed in an interview published in the Guardian on 17th January, both he and Lord Adonis, the Minister responsible for rail, are very persuaded about the case for high-speed rail, even though the two major studies currently underway – for the Public Interest Group set up by Greengauge 21 and the ‘new lines’ study by Network Rail – are not due to report until the summer.
The question now is how Ministerial ambition and momentum can be delivered in practice. Lord Adonis is a “yes we can” person. A team headed by civil servants will seem, to many, an unlikely choice as a means to make rapid progress.
But as a way of managing the important interfaces across government, it is very helpful. Tempering this department-led company with an injection of private sector expertise (and doing so without triplicating the work already in-hand through the Greengauge 21 and Network Rail studies now in full swing) is surely what’s needed.