Leading article: High-speed is still the right track for Britain

Tuesday 01 March 2011 01:00

There will be nothing very rapid about Britain's move into a high-speed rail future. The consultation launched yesterday will give the public five months to challenge the proposed London to Birmingham route. The first section of track will not be laid before 2015. And trains are not actually expected to begin to travel the line until 2026. Slow going it will be, but high-speed rail is still the right track for Britain.

Fierce objections from those who live on the proposed route through the Chilterns and north-west London have already begun. The case should be heard. But the Government needs to consider the national interest as well as the local. And the national interest in Britain developing a Continental-style high-speed rail network is clear.

There are two problems that have long plagued the British rail system. The first is a lack of capacity. The second is poor management. The proposed high-speed rail line, which will extend further north after the initial leg is built, should help with the first. Those who object that the money should be spent on increasing capacity on the existing rail network overlook the fact that the high-speed line will take pressure off the existing intercity lines. The addition of 14 trains travelling every hour between London and Birmingham, each with 1,100 seats, will have a dramatic effect.

It has been suggested that widening Britain's roads would be a more cost-effective way of improving the UK transport network. But that does not take into account the environmental benefit of high-speed rail. A high-speed network will drive down the demand for car and domestic aviation travel, which is essential if we are to reduce our national carbon dioxide emissions. The new line should also eventually reduce the demand for flights to Europe. When Frankfurt is just seven hours from Manchester by train, it might be a strange choice to take a plane. The new rail capacity should also increase the amount of goods that can be transported by freight.

At a projected cost of £17bn, high-speed rail is certainly an expensive project, especially in the context of £52bn in government spending cuts by 2015. But Britain should have learnt by now about false economies when it comes to public investment. In the 1980s, the Thatcher government starved the rail network of investment, while our Continental peers ploughed in money. The result is the gulf that exists today between the quality of our railways and those of Germany, France, Italy and Spain.

The regional distribution of the benefits of this spending should be considered, too. High-speed rail to the great metropolises of the North will help boost growth in those regions. All governments promise to shift national growth away from the South-east; high-speed rail is a policy that should help turn those good intentions into reality.

Yet high-speed rail is no solution to that other great curse of the British rail network: bad management. The Conservatives failed to invest adequately in British Rail in the 1980s. And under John Major in 1993 they imposed a disastrous privatisation. The private train operating companies, with their de facto monopolies and their undemanding contracts, have had little incentive to deliver a better service to customers. Fares have soared even as the public subsidy for the rail network has increased. One of the reasons public enthusiasm for high-speed rail is absent is that many people's experience of British trains has been so unsatisfactory.

The Coalition is right to keep Britain on course for a high-speed future. But it also needs to ensure that those actually running our railways are up to the job.

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