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High speed rail: Nothing is guaranteed in this world

In the next few weeks the government is expected to publish the long awaited and much trailed white paper on its high speed rail aspirations for the UK.

Whether that means a dedicated northsouth high speed railway network is any closer is, of course, another matter entirely.

In fact it is more likely to mean the opposite. While Labour and the Conservatives agree over the need for the construction of a new high speed line, there is an increasing gulf between what each side defines as the best strategy to deliver it.

At this week’s NCE conference on the future of high speed rail, there was certainly no end of support for construction of a new high speed network in the UK.

In fact Conservative transport spokesman Stephen Hammond repeatedly reiterated his commitment to the project and stated that progressing the plans would start the moment a Conservative government was elected to Downing Street.

“I can imagine that the public might find a multi-billion commitment to rail hard to swallow”

Which is good news of course. But I can’t seem to avoid the reality that the further down the track we move towards a decision on a route, the more exposed these divisions in thinking will tend to become.

Add in the prospect of a General Election drawing closer. For all the general commitment, are we starting to see the inevitable move away from long-term national policy thinking towards short-term vote winning?

The UK needs a new north-south high speed railway to add capacity to the existing Victorian network and provide an alternative to domestic north-south air travel.

But as we keep being reminded, the UK faces some difficult times ahead as it struggles to get the public finances back into shape.

Faced with a choice between cutting investment in schools or in transport, the public might find a multi-billion commitment to rail hard to swallow.

“With the General Election approaching, are we starting to see the inevitable move away from long-term national policy thinking towards short-term vote winning?”

And it is pretty much universally accepted by all political parties that transport is not going to be a major vote winning issue in the forthcoming General Election. The economy, health, education and social services will always dominate as key issues.

So while politicians may well agree that high speed rail will be a huge asset to the UK as a whole, they will also be aware that convincing voters to accept a new railway through their home-counties village might be an argument for later.

Infrastructure remains a hugely political issue as highlighted by this week’s news from Sydney, where new premier Kristina Keneally has unceremoniously canned the Sydney Metro as not being core to its constrained spending plans.

Sydney underlines that fact that we really do have to be very aware of these politics. In difficult economic times, transport and specifically high speed rail, could well revert to being a non-issue for the public and politicians post election.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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