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HS2 may not be what everyone wants – but it's what we need

Transport secretary Philip Hammond’s support for a £33bn UK high speed rail network and his promise of a public consultation in the New Year marks the first steps towards creating the long awaited 21st century public transport system that this nation craves.

Yet regardless of how mouth watering a prospect it is for civil engineers, is high speed really a deliverable or desirable project for the UK?

For a start, it will be hugely controversial and a very tricky programme to deliver.

As many letters to NCE have pointed out recently, there is considerable debate over the justification for driving a new railway though the Chilterns and this will spawn no small amount of local objection.

Then there is the need to find a rather large amount of public cash to pay for the project. Given that we constantly hear how empty the public purse is right now, this should not be underestimated as a political stumbling block.

Add to that the on-going debate over links to Heathrow, connections north of Birmingham, where to place stations and how or if to link to the existing High Speed 1 line and the current government ambition to start construction by 2015 starts to look optimistic to say the least.

Yet no one can doubt the economic, sustainable or social merits of this country’s need for a network of high speed rail lines.

We are without question already way behind the rest of Europe in our public transport infrastructure ambition. With the pace of high speed rail construction around the world, we will soon be left even further in the developed – and developing – world’s wake.

The reality is that if we are to maintain our place as an economic power, we have to get cracking. As the NCE Rail Summit heard last week, developing the high speed networks in France and Spain has taken 30 years. Our history and geography suggests that even that pace would be optimistic.

What is needed is a vision for all UK rail. While there is rightly much political emphasis on long term planning and the vision for high speed rail, the reality is that we cannot afford to take our focus off the here and now. Because for the rail industry, it is the next few years rather than the next few decades that will be critical.

As incoming Network Rail chief executive David Higgins will be aware, the whole industry has to continue its transformation into the 21st century with lower costs, new technical innovations and the provision of a seven day railway that serves customers.

The extra capacity that a new high speed network brings in 15 years is of course crucial. But more important is the government and industry vision to invest in and develop a modern, fast, safer and reliable rail transport network for the UK tomorrow.

That starts today.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

Readers' comments (3)

  • During these challenging times I would point out that the capacity on the Birmingham London route could be doubled very quickly by removing all but one of the first class cartridges that are normally empty on this route. Given that the train sets consist of nearly 50% first class carriages this would have a significant immediate impact at substantially less cost…

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  • The cost-benefit analysis published by HS2's supporters claims a net present value of £22billion, yet we are told the cost is estimated to be £32billion. Is this logical?

    I understood that the COBA (cost benefit analysis) procedure which was used in the past by the Department of Transport to support road building is no longer used except to justify expenditutre on safety measures. This is because it always provides a positive benefit from road building, which does not suit today's socio-political paradigm. So why should it be used in support of HS2, from which the predicted revenue stream provides the measure of benefit?

    It seems all too much like a 'vanity project' - similar to the Railway Race to the North at the turn of the 20th C, and the LNER and LMS streamliner trains of the 1930s. All very exciting - but costly and irrelevant to most of the customer need. The industrial bases of our international competitors who will build the trains will be the main beneficiaries, and UK manufacturing engineering will be shamed by its inability to compete.

    And intermediate cities like Coventry will suffer since their train services will be diminished. It is a Metropolitan Assault on Middle England...

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  • Agree with DC
    This is very much a "nice to have" facility which more than anything else supplies politicians with middle England voter brownie points.
    I have yet to see a proper comparison with the alternative platform lengthening option on existing routes, though if JE's solution will work .....?
    The thing is the politicians and other proponents don't seem to grasp that most travel is simply consumptive!
    Now if the funds were invested in a Severn Barrage, not only is there a productive output, but it's dual purpose too!
    Another constructive alternative investment might be as proposed by the last Labour government - a data super network. This would enable more reliable conference skype meeting, obviating much rail travel.
    Further, if rail construction and use were entirely un-subsidised, it would quickly be clear to all that our system is well over capacity as it is!

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