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Roads and rail need solid plans, not political hot air

The bizarre and unprecedented spectacle of aircraft grounded across Europe for the best part of a week presents a great opportunity to ponder the merits of high speed rail.

Not least given that political support for public investment in new rail infrastructure has never been higher. While high speed rail hasn’t exactly been top of the election hustings agenda, there remains a clear and unfaltering commitment by all the major parties to press ahead with the grand plan.

Yet the clear question remains − not least amongst the cynics of the transport profession − will a high speed rail network ever really get built in the UK?

As the NCE letters pages this week show, high speed rail is not universally accepted by all as the vital missing transport mode in the UK. Is there, they ask, really a solid case for investing such huge sums of cash in return for relatively small reductions in travel time?

“The bigger question to ask of our politicians is precisely what plans are in place to bridge the capacity gap ahead”

Is UK business really interested in or prepared to pay for such speed increases? Or would the money be better spent on creating slower, more reliable or frequent rail services across the UK?

And why are we building a new high speed rail service without a direct link to the continent?

Clearly − and perhaps not unsurprisingly − there are many people across the UK with views and opinions on the subject. Some have a vested interest, many do not.

As former HS2 chairman Sir David Rowlands points out this week, the debate over high speed rail in the UK has only just begun. It is buildable and it is fundable, but the real issue to unpack is how it fits within the wider plan for transport across the UK.

Because while the 539km long proposed £30bn route serving London, the West Midlands, Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds will transform north-south communications with radically shortened journey times, the real benefit will be the huge − and really needed − increase in rail capacity.

“HS2 is buildable and it is fundable, but the real issue to unpack is how it fits within the wider plan for transport.”

As Network Rail and users of the West Coast Mainline will be acutely aware, the £9bn programme to upgrade the line only bought sufficient new capacity to last until around 2016.

Since even the most optimistic timelines predict that construction of HS2 will not start until 2017 with opening not before 2025, we are looking at nine years at the least of overcrowding on this vital north-south link.

Whilst we may bask in the sunshine of pre-election cross-party political support for high speed rail, the bigger question to be asked of our politicians is precisely what plans are in place to bridge the capacity gap ahead.

Sadly I fear that there are none. A grand vision for the future is always a great thing, and politically quite easy. What we also need is a transport policy for today − a substantially harder question.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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