High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:17 pm on 14th April 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour 12:17 pm, 14th April 2016

My Lords, I declare an interest as a non-executive director of HS2. It is almost exactly six years since, as Secretary of State for Transport, I presented the plans for HS2 to the House. HS2 is the biggest infrastructure project in Europe; it is remarkable how rapid the progress has been from conception to the verge of construction, thanks to effective policy and project planning and strong cross-party support. At 25,000 pages, this is the biggest Bill ever presented to Parliament. In fact, I believe that it is equivalent to the entire legislative output of Parliament in its first five centuries. A Select Committee of the House will subject the Bill to thorough scrutiny and we are grateful in advance to the noble Lords who are heroically taking on that onerous task.

HS2 is on course for enactment at the end of this year and the start of construction next year, with the first phase from London to Birmingham to open in 2026, just 16 years from conception. For a scheme of its size and complexity, this is a phenomenal achievement and a striking counter to the notion that we cannot execute big, essential infrastructure projects in Britain in a timely manner. I pay tribute to all concerned, not least the Ministers—led by Patrick McLoughlin as Secretary of State—David Prout and his excellent team of officials in the Department for Transport, Sir David Higgins and Simon Kirby and their highly professional staff at HS2, and Robert Syms and the members of his Select Committee in the House of Commons, who appear to be an army of insomniacs.

It is not just the rate of progress that stands out from the past six years but the integrity of the case for HS2, which has withstood fierce debate and cross-examination. From the outset, the central argument for HS2 has been the need for extra capacity between Britain’s major conurbations. It is sometimes said that HS2 started as a project simply to cut journey times and then changed tack to capacity but this is not true. The 2010 Command Paper began by saying that,

“the Government’s assessment is … that over the next 20 to 30 years the UK will require a step-change in transport capacity between its largest and most productive conurbations, both facilitating and responding to long-term economic growth … alongside such additional capacity, there are real benefits for the economy and for passengers from improving journey times and hence the connectivity of the UK”.

From the outset, the central argument for HS2 has been about capacity, with speed and connectivity as significant additional benefits. I see the noble Lord, Lord Darling, who was Chancellor at the time, in his place. There is no way he would have agreed to the scheme on any other basis.

Since 2010 the imperative for more capacity has become greater still, which is essentially why HS2 has withstood scrutiny and controversy. HS2 links the four largest cities and city regions of the UK, centred on London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, while also providing direct services to Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Newcastle and key destinations in south Yorkshire and the east Midlands. It could not be more vital to our economic future. As the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, said, the long-term trend growth rate is 5% a year. Rail demand has doubled in the past 15 years alone. HS2 does not just meet this demand for intercity travel; by freeing up substantial capacity on the existing lines, it provides a major capacity boost for freight trains and commuter and regional passenger services into and between the major conurbations of the country.

From the outset, the big question underpinning HS2 has been: if not HS2, what? The only alternative to HS2 for dealing with the capacity crunch is massive further upgrades of the existing Victorian main lines—or in the case of the west coast main line, pre-Victorian. The west coast main line, of which only four miles are straight between Manchester and London because it was built around the ancestral estates of many Members of your Lordships’ House, was opened for the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1838. This realisation has served to keep HS2 on track, and it does not require a crystal ball.

The last upgrade of the west coast main line cost £9 billion, £1 billion of which was simply to pay train operators for not running trains due to the disruption in a decade of constant upheaval—quite apart from the huge cost borne by passengers and businesses, for which they got no compensation. Upgrading a busy mainline railway is like conducting open-heart surgery on a moving patient. To put this in perspective, the present Government identified an upgrade alternative to HS2 from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds in their 2013 strategic case. This upgrade cost nearly half as much as HS2 but provided only a quarter of the extra capacity. Moreover, that capacity increase would have been insufficient by the late 2020s, even to keep pace with the lower of the growth projections for intercity traffic in the 2013 strategic assessment. Further upgrades of conventional lines—or, more likely, HS2 reinvented—would have been required thereafter.

Even to carry out those upgrades would have been hugely disruptive, involving the equivalent of 14 years of continuous line closures every weekend to carry out work, including a new 30-mile stretch of tunnel and surface line to get the east coast main line out of King’s Cross, avoiding a series of acute existing bottlenecks, including the Welwyn Viaduct; the rebuilding of most of the major stations on all three major lines going north from Euston, St Pancras and King’s Cross, including those three termini, to accommodate more platforms and longer trains; and four-tracking a lot of two-track sections of lines, including in urban areas. Indeed, the original assessment of alternatives published when I was Secretary of State included the four-tracking of the entire Chiltern line; many of your Lordships gave me the benefit of your advice on that proposal. It is hardly a compelling alternative to HS2, let alone a cheap one.

There has also been a long-running argument over the last six years about benefit-cost ratios, which to my mind are helpful but should not dictate projects because they are essentially artificial in their inputs. One artificial input has been the great weight given to the benefit of time saved by business travellers, as if they were not able to work on trains. That is true. Equally artificial, though, and more significant because it goes to the heart of the capacity argument for HS2, is the fact that the benefit-cost methodology caps traffic growth for rail in 2036 on this project. It does so on the grounds that further growth thereafter is too speculative, but 2036 is only three years after the line opens. If Brunel had adopted the same approach to the building of the Great Western Railway, he would have capped its growth in 1870 and there may well have been a better economic argument for upgrading the canals. Nor did we build the M25 thinking that traffic growth would stop in 1995, or the Victoria line on the basis that passenger numbers would stop growing in 1970. One cannot of course predict the future but we have to provide for it as best we can. In my view, it would be a reckless disregard of the national interest on all the most likely scenarios to fail to provide critical transport capacity between our major conurbations going through to the middle and later parts of this century.

The argument on faster journey times has also become clearer over time, as the case for HS2 has extended beyond the Midlands to include the north of England and Scotland, which will be served directly or indirectly by trains after the second phase of HS2 is completed. As HS2 proceeds further north, the time savings become steadily greater: an hour off every journey between London and Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds, while journeys will be further shortened by the proposed interchange between HS2 and Crossrail at Old Oak Common, just west of Paddington, as was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw. This will give an 11-minute direct connection to Heathrow and fast underground trains direct to the West End, the City and Docklands without going via Euston and its congested Victoria and Northern lines. I happen to agree with the noble Lord; once people realise the huge efficiency and connectivity of the interchange at Old Oak Common, it may turn out to be more popular than Euston itself.

Critically, however, HS2 also not only dramatically improves connections between London and cities in the Midlands and the north but between the cities of the Midlands and the north, and between cities within the north itself. The Victorian railway companies built mostly separate main lines from provincial cities to London, which is why rail links between most of our provincial cities remain very poor. Birmingham and Manchester are only 67 miles apart, yet the rail journey time between them takes one and a half hours. It will be 40 minutes by HS2. Sheffield to Manchester could be reduced to 30 minutes by HS2, if it is incorporated as part of the second phase, making this a key part of what is now being called HS3—the proposed upgrading of rail links between the northern cities, a good part of which will build on the work of HS2 in the north.

Finally, there is the international context. High-speed rail between major cities is well established internationally. It is a key part of the transport systems in Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and many other countries. The first major project has now started in the United States between LA and San Francisco, which is roughly the distance between London and Glasgow. I am not aware of a single country that has introduced high-speed rail between its major cities and now thinks that this was a mistake. Of course there are major challenges ahead, not least in keeping HS2 to time and to budget, but we are right to be taking HS2 forward. It will change the country for the better and it cannot come soon enough.