Transport secretary Geoff Hoon last week boosted hopes for the construction of a second UK high speed rail line with the establishment of a new company to develop the project.
Called High Speed Two, the company will assess the feasibility of building a transport hub at Heathrow and of running high speed lines from St Pancras to Birmingham via this hub.
The plans are set out in the Department for Transport’s Britain’s Transport Infrastructure, High Speed Two report, published last week. So far no funding has been allocated for the project which has no definitive route. But government’s approval of the concept, which has been promoted by the Conservative opposition, lends the idea vital cross-party support.
Arup transport director Mark Bostock was upbeat about the announcement, which builds on an idea developed by his firm. "There is no mention of money, but we believe this can all be done in the private sector," he said. High speed rail pressure group Greengauge21 founder Jim Steer, said the decision was "historic". "With all major political parties saying very supportive things, it is a significant step," he said.
But Campaign for Better Transport executive director Stephen Joseph said the route via Heathrow was unlikely. "Something is going to happen. But to build the Heathrow hub would be enormously expensive, especially when you already have Crossrail linking to central London," he said. "A lot of people in the rail industry are making the case for the new line but want to take it north from London parallel to the M1."
High Speed Two will be led by the Department for Transport’s former permanent secretary Sir David Rowlands. Steer expected a dialogue with interested parties to develop quickly. He said he wanted to press two topics: "First, the practicalities of how to design and build a new railway, and second the long term network in Britain." He said he was encouraged by the government’s briefing document, which anticipates the construction of more lines.
Bostock said the Heathrow hub would be developed in tandem with High Speed Two. "We have established Heathrow Hub [the Arup firm which is promoting the project] and the next stage is to further develop our idea and firm up investment opportunities," he said.
Proposals for High Speed Two and for the third runway could be among the first to go ahead under the new Planning Act. Bostock said: "We hope and expect the proposal to be wrapped up in a National Policy Statement for transport, which will be debated in the House of Commons, and then passed to the Infrastructure Planning Commission. We hope to gain determination that way."
Conservative plans announced in September also include a Heathrow hub, as proposed by Arup, and a line to Birmingham, as proposed by Greengauge21. But the Conservative Party also wants lines to Manchester and Leeds and have also rejected a third runway at Heathrow on environmental grounds, arguing that a high speed line north from London would relieve pressure on the airport.
Villiers said: "I welcome his [Hoon’s] apparent conversion to high speed rail but we’ve still only got warm words, more studies and the possibility of a new line as far as Birmingham. And why does he still refuse to accept that high speed rail could provide an alternative to a third runway by providing an alternative to thousands of short haul flights?"
£40bn - Government transport spending for next three years
547 - Number of lane kilometres to be added to motorways
2020 - Proposed completion date for third Heathrow runway