Plans for a high-speed railway move more slowly than a stopping train from London to Cornwall. The long delay takes some explaining because in theory the leaderships of all three main parties are in favour. What is more, a detailed Bill was ready to be introduced to Parliament by the time David Cameron came to power in 2010.
The outgoing Labour Transport Secretary, Andrew Adonis, only took the job on the basis that he could start work on a high-speed railway. Gordon Brown agreed, and Adonis got cracking, the only figure to act with speedy conviction in this drawn-out saga. Adonis liaised with all parties as he prepared embryonic legislation. All the parties were happy with what he proposed. The bill could have been in the Coalition’s first Queen’s Speech.
Now the Labour leadership is wary, and Cameron has said he will not go ahead without Labour’s support. In terms of rail travel, the UK’s attempt to catch up with Spain, France, Italy and numerous other countries struggles to get anywhere at all.
There have been two developments since the general election that have led to a near fatal paralysis. When the Coalition was elected, Cameron paid little or no attention to high-speed rail. Perhaps he had too much else to focus on. Maybe the immense project was a victim of his relaxed approach to policy detail. Whatever the reason, the legislation that Adonis had prepared was not taken up immediately and, equally important, the vital task of convincing the public that such a project was worthwhile did not take place.
The Coalition’s honeymoon period would have been the ideal period to make the case, but high-speed rail did not get a look-in. The coalition was focused almost entirely on why the government should do less not more – from withdrawing loans to successful companies like Sheffield Forgemasters, to drawing up legislation that removed any responsibility from the Health Secretary to deliver an effective NHS. To their credit, Cameron and Osborne have never wobbled in their theoretical support for high-speed trains, but they failed to move resolutely when they had their chance.
Labour’s reaction is complex and partly reflects a range of internal dynamics. Adonis remains an influential figure in the party and Ed Miliband will be wary of alienating him. Adonis is seen, somewhat simplistically, as an ultra-Blairite and yet one who has been wholly loyal to Miliband. Miliband is anyway not wholly opposed to high-speed rail. He has been known to reflect on the perversity of seeking to be the party of capital spending while opposed to the biggest capital spending project.
Yet Miliband can be assertive when he chooses to be. He would not have given shadow Chancellor Ed Balls the space to pose near-fatal questions about high-speed rail at the Labour conference if he did not have doubts too. To revive one of Harold Wilson’s favourite phrases when approaching thorny questions, Miliband keeps all options open on this one.
When I interviewed Balls during Labour’s conference, he stuck to the line of conditional support and then spent 10 minutes outlining the drawbacks. For those of us who support high-speed rail, Balls’ opposition is a cause for reflection. Balls has displayed astute judgement on the big issues in recent decades often against political fashion. He was right to oppose Britain’s membership of the single currency and was correct also to warn that the coalition’s cuts in 2010 would lead to another recession at a time when the economy had started to grow again. His opposition to high-speed rail will be for reasons of substance as well as expedient politics.
Yet Balls has not come up with a credible alternative that addresses all the mountainous practical and political considerations. He is said to be exploring the case of an alternative line, the largely existing old Grand Central line that could link London to northern cities. The railways’ specialist, Michael Williams, wrote supportively of this in yesterday’s Independent. Yet when Williams outlined some of the drawbacks my heart started to sink. He wrote that some of the sections of the old Grand Central line run through tightly packed urban areas and have already been built over. He added that 50 miles of the route are missing.
Imagine the protestations in those urban areas. Imagine also, if HS2 is scrapped, trying once again to secure rare political consensus for an alternative line. If Labour were in power would the Conservatives support a new project? Would the Lib Dems?
Consider how far we have got in relation to high-speed rail in spite of the snail-like progress in recent years. Remarkably, there is in theory at least a political consensus in favour of the project. Treasure it. There have also always been big majorities in the Commons when votes have been cast on the project. Treasure them. Such agreement does not happen very often in the UK, where usually there is an assumption that services can improve without spending any public money. The inter-party agreement, however fragile, is worth clinging to.
This particular project is ready to go. No other is. If this does not happen, there will be no other. The level of political will required to start all over again is too great again for a country that is not used to investing large sums for the future. The money will not be invested on existing lines because the money is not yet allocated, and it will be soaked up elsewhere.
That is the overwhelming pragmatic case for HS2. If this project goes ahead, the money will be found. If it does not go ahead, do not believe for one moment that much of the cash will be diverted to other train projects.
Then there are the more fundamental arguments that, apart from Adonis, few advocates of the project have made with accessibly or with enough zeal. Already the existing lines cannot cope. I caught an early-afternoon train from London to Newcastle last week. It was packed, with many people standing. The same applied to my return journey mid-morning the next day. Some people had paid £200 for the privilege of being crammed on to a train. In our crazily fractured rail system the train companies would like nothing more than to price some passengers off their trains as an alternative to expanding supply. That is a bleak option.
Even in the unlikely event of substantial investment in the existing system, the level of disruption would be nightmarish. Some MPs insist that improvements can be made without disruption, but other than waving a wand and hoping for the best, I cannot see how.
The railways are a market, like energy, that does not work very well. It might work a little better if there is competition from an alternative high-speed line.
If the line does not go ahead, we will have lowered our sights as a country. There will be no substantial improvements elsewhere. Much depends on HS2 going ahead and as quickly as possible. For once the cliché is true. There is no alternative.