Tomorrow, the House of Commons will vote on the High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Bill, paving the way for the first new railway north of London in more than 120 years. Labour is backing this new line which will cut congestion on the railways, better connect our major cities and help deliver a one-nation economic recovery.
High Speed 2 (HS2) will improve connections between the North and South and between northern cities. It can be a key element in Ed Miliband's Agenda 2030 plan to create an economic recovery that reaches every part of our economy. Freeing up capacity on the congested West Coast Main Line will allow more frequent commuter and regional services and more rail freight.
Thousands of commuters are already standing on rush-hour trains into Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Euston. Major infrastructure takes years to plan and construct. We must act now to deliver the infrastructure needed to deal with the looming capacity crunch on our railways.
There can be no blank cheque. Ed Balls was right to raise Labour's concerns after four years of delays and mismanagement which have caused costs to rise. Labour will press the issue of value for money as the Bill proceeds. Its initial consultation on property compensation for homeowners affected by the route had to be rerun after a High Court judge ruled that it was "so unfair as to be unlawful".
The Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin, admits this legislation will not be passed by the next election but he should be credited with finally bringing the Bill to Parliament. Now he must provide the Government's response to the consultation of the phase two route (Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds) without delay to ensure the North benefits from HS2 as soon as possible, as Sir David Higgins recommended.
The project's cost is significant, but the benefits will be great. Cost-benefit analysis says it will deliver £2.30 in benefit for every £1 spent. The first phase will create 40,000 jobs and phase two between 48,000 and 70,000 jobs in Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and other cities along the route. A new further education college will train the next generation to become rail engineers. Our cities' transport plans should maximise HS2 opportunities to benefit the whole country. Advanced engineering skills must become a national priority. Small businesses need support to become HS2 suppliers.
HS2 follows in Brunel's great tradition, and we should learn from the Victorians' ambition for our railways. The recent destruction of Brunel's line at Dawlish reminds us of the imperative to protect our transport links from climate change. Any new rail infrastructure must be resilient to climate change. HS2 is our opportunity to connect our cities, drive jobs and growth, and deliver a railway fit for the 21st century.
Mary Creagh is shadow Secretary of State for Transport