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Economic Case for HS2 (Economic Affairs Committee Report) — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:04 pm on 16th September 2015.

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Photo of Lord Berkeley Lord Berkeley Labour 6:04 pm, 16th September 2015

My Lords, I declare my interest as the chairman of the Rail Freight Group, and apologise to the House and to my noble friend Lord Hollick for being late and for missing the start of his speech. It was due to a 24 hour-plus failure of the Government’s queue-busting e-border system at Gatwick North. I expect that it will get mended one day; it may even work one day.

I am still not clear whether the HS2 people and the Government are really sure about what they are trying to build. We have heard many noble Lords speak this afternoon about the purpose of HS2. Is it a sort of vanity project to be the best in the world, going between lovely new stations at very high speeds— 360 kph to 400 kph—then making people walk 20 minutes to the nearest classic or existing station or bus station, so we can say how wonderful we are? I prefer to look at it as something that will provide more capacity as part of an integrated network so that most of the trains—certainly in phase 1, apart from those going to Birmingham—can go on to the existing network and give people more reliable and quicker through-services to wherever they want to go. As my noble friend Lord Monks said, that is what happens in France and Germany, where there are very few places where a special new station has been built some way from existing stations. Lille is one example, and I know quite a lot about that.

The other issue is whether we need to go that fast on a small island such as ours. France and Germany are very big, geographically, and they seem to think that 300 kph is enough, so why do we want to go 360 kph or 400 kph—especially when, certainly in phase 1, with all the lovely long tunnels being built under the Chilterns, you have to go slower because of the piston effect? But there we are.

I recall advising the then Secretary of State for Transport, my noble friend Lord Adonis, that we should start at the north end, partly for political reasons and partly because, as many noble Lords have said, the railways are a lot worse there than they are in the south. But there we are; we will be starting from scratch again—and we have all agreed that there is no actual route for HS3 across the Pennines. This at least has a route, and the project is going through the Commons Select Committee. So the best thing to do is to go ahead with it, get it right and make it cheaper.

There is a problem of capacity on this route corridor. My noble friend Lord Lea said that I should speak about rail freight, which is forecast to double in 20 years. That is not something plucked out of the air; that forecast has come from rail freight industry reports, from operators and everybody else in it. Passenger traffic on the railways in the past 20 years has doubled, and both of those are ahead of the Government’s forecasts at the time. So we can suddenly say that everything is going to change and there will be no more growth in future, but we would be unwise to do that. New lines and services have been started, with the Victoria Line in London, new services in Scotland, and even the new line to the Borders. The noble Earl, Lord Glasgow, said that HS2 would be the first new line for 100 years, but he ought to know that the Queen opened a new line in Scotland last week. I am told that the traffic on that is already exceeding expectations, although that may just be a blip.

There is a capacity problem, but the analysis that I have done with some expert colleagues shows that growth is going to be greater on the longer-distance commuter services into Euston than on HS2. So my argument is that we should look at Euston as a terminus for HS2 and the west coast main line as one project. That is why we sent to the Secretary of State last week a project that involves not demolishing half of Camden, coming down the west side of the west coast main line, but diverting the tunnels from Old Oak Common into Queen’s Park—if noble Lords can follow my geography—using the existing lines into Euston and the existing platforms, but extended south. Noble Lords said that there is a capacity problem at Euston. In fact, there is not. An analysis of train turnaround times will show that they are a lot more relaxed and slower at Euston than they are at Paddington or Liverpool Street, and Euston has space for HS2 and most of the existing west coast main line trains on a similar turnaround time, provided that you divert some of the shorter suburban trains on to Crossrail, which is another plan, through Old Oak Common.

This project we have developed would save about £1.5 billion to £2 billion. It would avoid all the demolition around Euston. I do not agree with the idea that Euston should become a massive development like King’s Cross Railway Lands. After all, the railway lands were government-owned property. There is no government-owned property around Euston, apart from the station and the railway boundary. If people want to build towers all over the line going out as far as Queen’s Park, that should be a separate planning application, but there is not the same potential as there was at King’s Cross, which is lovely. It would be very good if Ministers could accept a scheme such as the one I have developed and save at least £1.5 billion and probably £2 billion, plus reducing the speed of the trains from 360 kph or 400 kph to 300 kph, which I am told would save 50% of the cost of the train. These trains would then be built to the British gauge, like the old Eurostar, and could go anywhere in the country. This probably offers them the best of both worlds: cost saving, less hassle at Euston, shorter Select Committee time perhaps, and a project that would not involve 20 years of construction at Euston. The latest figure is 680 trucks a day out of Euston for several years, taking spoil away. Why they cannot use rail freight I have not yet discovered, but I shall try.