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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:52 pm on 14th April 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport) 3:52 pm, 14th April 2016

My Lords, I firmly support HS2. From these Benches, we are supporters of the railways because they are environmentally preferable to the roads, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, has just pointed out, can be remarkably inefficient. Railways are also very much more environmentally friendly than air travel. It is clear that the existing railway line is at virtually maximum capacity. Squeezing the occasional extra train into the train slots available or adding a few extra seats will not create the extra capacity needed. Some argue that the capacity problem lies with the commuter routes rather than with the long-distance services. However, this argument ignores the fact that a new, long-distance rail line will free up capacity on the existing line, which can then supplement existing commuter services.

There are others who believe that the problem can be solved by upgrades to the existing line, or with double-decker trains. I live in Cardiff and travel on the Great Western line. We are delighted that it is being subject to electrification, but anyone who has suffered the prolonged disruption of that process, with signals being changed, bridges being raised and so on, will realise that it is very disruptive, not just to passengers, but to the communities through which the line travels. I can recommend to your Lordships the alternative route that we are always sent on via Gloucester; it is very beautiful, but I know it far too well.

Forecasts of passenger numbers on the existing line have repeatedly underestimated demand in the case of the potential HS2 route, so we accept the need for a new line. If we are to build a new one we should build it to the highest specifications. I believe we should build to the standards of the future, not the past. As several noble Lords have pointed out, high-speed rail is now the norm. We are lagging internationally and we need to catch up.

So the concept of HS2 has our support and we believe that the economic case for it has underestimated the situation, rather than exaggerated it. But that does not mean that we should be uncritical; we on these Benches are definitely not uncritical cheerleaders for the project. We have serious concerns, shared across the House today, about some aspects of the scheme. My noble friend Lord Bradshaw outlined our doubts about existing plans for Euston, which we believe threaten to disrupt the lives of Camden residents, travellers to Euston station and visitors to that area for almost two decades—a whole generation. As my noble friend explained, we do not think that this level of disruption is necessary. The footprint of Euston station is very generous and there is space that can be utilised there that is not planned to be.

We are also concerned that attention should be paid now to a swift, convenient and weatherproof link between Euston and King’s Cross St Pancras from HS2 to HS1. Only this week the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and his commission raised the issue of the length of time the Crossrail interchanges with existing infrastructure will take. That sort of problem needs to be avoided when possible in the plans for HS2. That is just one of a number of unanswered questions about HS2 plans. I urge that these problem are resolved now, because, taken together, they could undermine the success of the scheme.

I move on to connectivity, which is a key concern. HS2 and future phases must link well with enhanced services on existing lines, connecting the cities and towns of the Midlands and the north. The Chancellor has made much of the northern powerhouse project, but it will not succeed on the basis of HS2 alone. The bread-and-butter, daily commuting from one town or city to another is essential. It has to be easier and quicker than it is now in the Midlands and the north. The Government must commit to that additional investment and get on with it, as my noble friend Lord Glasgow said. HS2 cannot be allowed to suck in all capital investment. There must instead be a stimulation of additional investment as a result of HS2. To have good connectivity, we must have compatibility. The trains must be classic-compatible, as my noble friend Lord Bradshaw said.

I turn to finance. The figures are eye-wateringly large. That does not deter our support; they are to be taken over decades rather than years, and the process of building the new line and stations will create jobs, skills and regeneration, and be of lasting benefit to the economy. Our country’s economy has for many decades been held back by inadequate infrastructure and Governments lacking the foresight or political courage to commit to long-term investment on an ambitious scale. However, there has been cross-party support for this project. Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative Ministers have consecutively supported and endorsed this project. Yet we still need to ensure that the money is well spent and that the project delivers on the promises made. Good cost control and project management will be fundamental. How do the Government intend to sharpen up HS2’s approach so that it performs as well as Crossrail in this regard?

It is inevitable with any major infrastructure project such as this that there will be objections to the detail. The line will run near someone’s home—or indeed it will not—or stations will not be nearby, or it will intrude on areas of great beauty or environmental value. It is important that those arguments are heard and that we take them seriously. I hope that some of the fears expressed in the petitions prove unfounded or can be dealt with by HS2 Ltd. The Select Committee in the other place dealt with these aspects in detail and addressed the concerns of many but there is more to be done. I remain concerned that some areas will be disrupted by construction for years but may not be properly compensated for that.

A number of major issues were not resolved in the Select Committee report from the other place. For instance, there is Euston, which the Select Committee dealt with at the end of its deliberations. I support the sentiments behind the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, stipulating that the Lords Select Committee should start with Euston to redress the balance of attention, if we can put it that way. I am told that there were would be a problem with that from the point of view of Camden Council because it will be waiting for a report from the Government. However, the Select Committee must find a way to address the issue of ensuring that enough attention is given to the Euston area.

A scheme as technically complex as HS2 also requires expert advice to be available to the Select Committee. I am told that there is no precedent for this. While our procedures have existed for a long time, as the noble Lord, Lord Young, pointed out, they need perhaps to adapt. This is a very modern and technically complex Bill. The Select Committee needs to find a way to get expert advice on this complex set of issues.

We will soon appoint the Select Committee. I wish its members well. They will have a very onerous but absolutely vital task if this project is to be successful. The sooner HS2 is built the better. From these Benches, we remain firm but critical friends of the scheme, which I hope marks a step change in our country’s approach to major and ambitious infrastructure projects.