There was something surreal about yesterday's transport White Paper. Westminster has been sunk in gloom for months over the prospect of unavoidable cuts in public spending and a new era of fiscal austerity.
And into this funereal atmosphere comes bounding the Tiggerish Transport Secretary, Andrew Adonis, to propose a £30bn investment in a new high-speed rail line between London and the great cities of the north. Even more astonishingly, the Conservatives, instead of condemning Labour for its fiscal profligacy in proposing this idea, say they would start building the line even earlier. Have they all gone mad?
Of course, it is a matter of timing. Construction work (and serious spending) would not begin on the new rail line until 2017, by which time it is assumed the present fiscal crisis will be behind us. Yet we should still be pleased that there is a cross-party consensus for this is the sort of long-term transport infrastructure project that governments of all stripes have rejected in the past on expense grounds. This has been a false economy. While our European neighbours in France, Germany and Spain have enjoyed excellent high-speed rail services for decades, Britain's economy has been shackled by the same slow and crumbling transport infrastructure.
Though work is not planned to begin for several years, this White Paper is not entirely unconnected with our present dire economic circumstances. As an indication of serious public investment, this White Paper should help bolster confidence in the private sector. A project on this scale will require thousands of engineers and builders. And with work already underway on the London Crossrail project, investors have one more powerful reason to keep their money in Britain.
Of course, any building project on this scale will face planning obstacles. Environmental and conservation groups voiced reservations yesterday about the proposed route of the new line, which will cut across the Chilterns to reach Birmingham from London. But this is a question of choices. These groups should consider that the alternative is not the status quo but more road building, or more domestic flights. They should also bear in mind that rail is the least carbon-intensive form of rapid inter-city transport. For once, the Government is putting its money where its mouth is by investing in Britain's green transport infrastructure.
Concerns from passenger groups that government spending on high-speed rail – estimated in the White Paper at £2bn a year from 2017 – will crowd out spending on the existing rail network are more valid. But to devote all resources to improving existing lines and stations would be another false economy. If passenger numbers continue to rise at the present rate, the present capacity will eventually come under intolerable strain. Those who are concerned about the quality of their existing rail services should also bear in mind that a high-speed line would take a great deal of pressure off the present network.
High-speed rail is the right long-term investment for Britain's future. To see the economic and social benefits we need only look across the Channel. And despite the present economic gloom, it is affordable. The dominant public concern should not be cost, but ensuring that, whichever party forms the next government, those political promises to lay tracks are kept.
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