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Two acts of monumental folly have been imposed on the railway industry over the past 50 years. The first, back in 1963, was the Beeching report, which led to the butchering of lines linking communities across the UK. Indeed, one consequence of Beeching is highly relevant to today’s debate, because one of the lines he closed was the Great Central line, which ran from London to Sheffield and Manchester. Were it still in operation, I suggest that we would be debating whether to spend money upgrading it, rather than committing £17 billion, rising to £32 billion, on High Speed 2, for which the infrastructure work will not even begin until 2017.
The second act of monumental folly, of course, was the decision in the 1990s to privatise the railways, something that even Mrs Thatcher steered clear of. She had the good sense to realise that it is not possible to privatise a railway system and divorce the operating companies from the infrastructure. As we all know, privatisation has brought no benefit whatsoever for the consumer. The subsidies now paid to train operating companies are double what they were pro rata when British Rail ceased to exist. The Secretary of State was a little reluctant to answer when asked what the subsidy is. Well, I will help him out: £2.6 billion a year is spent subsidising a railway system that is not fit for purpose.
I would have hoped that the Secretary of State and his colleagues would not bring to the Chamber today something that I believe will be yet another act of folly imposed on the railway industry, particularly in view of all the information that has come out over the past two years as the economic case for HS2 has unravelled. Regrettably, that appears not to be the case.
Reference has already been made to the National Audit Office report, but the comments made in it should be repeated again and again, not least the fact that it estimates that there is already a £3.3 billion funding shortfall, a figure that has just been glossed over as far as London is concerned, as my right hon. Friend Frank Dobson said. Indeed, the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee has said that the Government’s business case is “farcical” and
“clearly not up to scratch”.
Furthermore, she said that some of the Department’s assumptions were “ludicrous”. I am talking about the National Audit Office and the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, yet we have been told again and again today that the figures do stack up.