Steve Richards: If everyone wants high speed rail, why is it doomed?

On a project of this scale, momentum is all. Since the election, there has been virtually none

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The plan to build a high speed rail link in the UK moves even more slowly than a train from London to Cornwall. In what is a bizarrely contorted juxtaposition, all three main parties are theoretically committed to the link and yet it seems increasingly as if the project will not happen. The reasons will be depressingly familiar for those who know the history of ambitious infrastructure projects in Britain. Once more, superficial opportunism, incompetence, fear and ministerial weakness play their destructive roles.

The new Transport Secretary, Justine Greening, has announced another delay in the final decision to give the go-ahead. The latest stoppage is far more ominous than it seems, the equivalent of the train to Cornwall stopping somewhere in Somerset for what seems like a pause for breath but which turns out to be the end of the journey. The inexperienced Greening, the second Transport Secretary in a Coalition that has avoided too many ministerial changes elsewhere, has announced that she is consulting about drilling a tunnel under the Chilterns in an attempt to appease the local Conservative MP and minister, Cheryl Gillan. If Greening gives the green light to the new tunnel, it will cost a further £500 million.

But that, of course, would not be the end of it. Detecting an increasingly characteristic sign of weakness from the Government in the face of threats from one largely unknown and insignificant minister, other MPs will want a tunnel in their constituencies, too. There will be more delay as inquiries are heard and legal actions instigated. The word will go out: If Gillan gets a tunnel we want one, too.

On a project of this scale, momentum is everything. Since the election, there has been virtually no momentum in spite of the much-hyped commitment of David Cameron when he was Leader of the Opposition. Labour's final Transport Secretary, Andrew Adonis, had published his detailed plan and secured the agreement of the Conservative leadership so there could be no question of the scheme being ditched.

The Liberal Democrats also entered the last election supporting high speed rail. But it is now estimated that, with all the delays since the election, the House of Commons is unlikely to vote on the scheme until 2013 and possibly later than that. By then, the next election will have loomed into view and the national interest will be replaced by the short-term need to retain seats.

So why has a project with such broad political support suffered from what might prove to be fatal delays? Part of the answer goes back to the origins of that political consensus. The agreement across the parties was built on flimsy foundations. Indeed the origins of how high speed rail finally got off the ground are uniquely British in their expedient eccentricity. To their credit, David Cameron and George Osborne arrived at the tentative destination first when they were in opposition. Their proclamation of support was sincere in that both were committed to the idea of big capital projects, not least in relation to the railways.

But, as is often the case with the duo, a degree of game-playing lay behind the announcement. They claimed that the project would be paid for by their opposition to a major expansion of Heathrow Airport. The problem with their argument then was that the money for airport expansion had not been allocated – and anyway their opposition to increased air travel was wafer-thin. Yes, they opposed the precise plans for a new runway at Heathrow but did not rule out a new airport elsewhere. Their plans for the funding of the rail link and their apparently evangelical commitment to the environment were not what they seemed.

Still their clever positioning made its mark. Every instinct in Gordon Brown's political body was against the rail link, but he noted the success Cameron had in espousing the cause. This would not have been enough on its own to shift Brown, who was never a great fan of rail investment in the way he was for schools and hospitals. One individual changed the direction of travel. Brown was desperate to promote Andrew Adonis to the cabinet to show that he could work with Tony Blair's closest policy adviser. Adonis left journalism for politics to implement specific changes and is a model in this respect for those ministers content with power for its own sake. He told Brown that he wanted one job, that of Transport Secretary, and he would only take it if he could instigate high speed rail. Brown gave him the go-ahead and the project became a solo crusade.

 

Since then, the flaky political consensus has become flakier. Conservative MPs are stirring. Many Labour MPs are far from convinced and their leadership equivocates. When the going gets tough, Cameron has a habit of conceding ground or not noticing that his ministers are doing so.

In addition, a key argument in relation to funding has suddenly become much more complex. Adonis had argued forcefully that most of the cash for the link would not be required in this parliament of austerity. But after last week's Autumn Statement we know that planned austerity will extend well into the next parliament. How tempting it will be to delay to the point of oblivion.

To do so would be disastrous. There would be no clearer signal that Britain has decided that it cannot compete in terms of infrastructure and has opted to return to the squalor of the second-best. The rail specialist, Christian Wolmar, is opposed to the project. He is a powerful advocate for the opposition as he is passionate about the railways, tweeting excitedly almost every time he and his bike get on a train. Superficially, his argument is strong: that the current railway system should be upgraded instead.

The flaw in his case is that the cash saved from scrapping the project would not be spent on modernising the current service. The money would disappear from the railways altogether. In any case, as Adonis has pointed out, the upgrade to the West Coast line was expensive and disruptive for a decade for relatively minor improvements.

"Not in my backyard" is the inevitable response from those in the relevant backyards. Nothing would ever happen if governments surrendered to the NIMBY argument every time they sought to be uncharacteristically ambitious, and, in many cases, rail improvement is less disruptive than that for roads. The arguments about whether the time saved by faster travel is worth the cost become absurdly existential. What is time worth? We will have plenty of time to contemplate that question on creaking trains if this project is scrapped.

When a political consensus forms around a cause, it seems the cause is doomed.

www.twitter.com/steverichards14 / s.richards@independent.co.uk

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