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